Articles Archive -- Topical Index -- Textual Index

by Al Maxey

Issue #811 -- November 18, 2020
What makes all doctrines plain and clear?
About two hundred pounds a year.
And that which was prov'd true before,
Prove false again? Two hundred more.

Samuel Butler {1612-1680}

It's As Clear As Mud
Plainly Stated Biblical Truths?

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) characterized Talleyrand (1754-1838), the French clergyman and politician, as "a silk stocking filled with mud." Interesting metaphor. It somewhat reminds me of our Lord's characterization of the scribes and Pharisees of His day who "clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence," and who are further "like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness" (Matthew 23:25, 27). On the surface, to the casual viewer, some things clearly appear bright and clean, shiny and beautiful, which can lead one to suppose that what is clearly and plainly portrayed on the outside is equally so more deeply within. That is not always the case, however. There are things in this world that are not nearly as clear and plain as one might think, a fact often discerned by more careful scrutiny of that which one has only casually considered. This is especially the case when reading the Old Covenant and New Covenant Scriptures. Some people would have you believe that every passage in the Bible is "as plain as day." You've heard them say about these inspired writings, "It says what it means, and means what it says!" Well, it's not quite that simple. I saw a cartoon recently which depicted two people talking with one another. One said, "The Bible is perfectly clear on every issue," to which the other person replied, "So, why are there thousands of different denominations?!" Part of the answer lies in the fact that what is "plain and clear" to one person, may not be equally as "plain and clear" to another. Does this mean that one is right, while the other is wrong? Does this mean one person is good and honest, while the other is evil and deceitful? Does this mean one loves God and His Word, while the other has no love or respect for either? Sadly, this is what some conclude.

I don't think it is blasphemous to state that there is much within the pages of the Bible that is nowhere near as "plain and clear" as some would have us believe. Nor is it blasphemous to assert that there are truths and principles within the Scriptures that can be evidenced and expressed in a wide variety of ways depending on one's culture and circumstance. Different does not equate to diabolical. Nor is it blasphemous to declare that there are things within the written Word that are difficult to grasp. "Plain as day"? "Clear as a bell"? Not quite. The apostle Peter, as he spoke of the writings of his fellow apostle Paul, felt no shame in admitting that within Paul's writings were "some things hard to understand" (2 Peter 3:16). What was "plain" to Paul was not always "clear" to Cephas. In Romans 14, Paul spoke of a number of "issues" about which honest believers had vastly differing understandings and practices, yet he dared to suggest that both were approved and accepted by God. His advice was: "Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind" (vs. 5), and "The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God" (vs. 22). Again, there are eternal truths and guiding principles that are not as "clear and plain" to some disciples as they are to others, yet Paul refused to judge one or the other disciple in their personal understandings, convictions, and practices. God accepted both. There is not a single one of us who will finish our journey through life with perfect understanding of all things pertaining to the mind and will of God. Some of us see certain eternal realities more clearly than others, but others see certain eternal realities far more clearly than we do. What to me is as perfectly clear as a cold mountain stream, may be more like a pool of muddy water to another child of God (and vice versa).

I have changed my convictions over the years about a number of things we read about in the Bible, and I will likely continue to do so as I continue to study these inspired writings. So have each of you (I would hope). NONE of us will end our days having arrived at perfect perception of eternal Truth. Thus, there is a bit of arrogance behind the bold assertion that "the Bible plainly says" this or that. You may be right; you may also be wrong. If it is "plain" to you, then Paul says to live your life by that conviction (indeed, it would be "sin" for you if you didn't -- Romans 14:22-23). It would also be a sin for you to condemn another believer who does NOT see the matter as "clearly" and "plainly" as you! He/she may see it much differently. Paul tells us to stop judging one another, and to start accepting one another. We must never seek to impose as divine LAW that which we "plainly" perceive, for our personal or party insights into the Word and Will of the Father are NOT the binding Standard upon which all men are to be judged fit or unfit for salvation. Yes, let's lovingly and respectfully examine and discuss (and even debate) one another's convictions, but we cross a line when we demand others submit to what is "clear and plain" to US.

On Tuesday, November 10, 2020, an elderly preacher (retired) by the name of Hugh Fulford, who lives in Tennessee, mailed out the latest issue of his periodical "Hugh's News & Views." The title of the article in this issue is "Some Things The Bible Plainly Says." As soon as I saw the word "plainly" in the title, I knew where he was headed, and red flags immediately went up. Partisan perceptions and practices would be introduced into Hugh's list and worded in such a way that they would appear to be divine precepts. It is a sectarian tactic that has been around for millennia. Further, the title of the piece begs the question, "To whom are these things plain?" The article begins with statements such as: God is the creator of all things, Jesus was born of a virgin named Mary, God sent His Son to redeem the world from sin, Jesus died, was buried, and arose, etc. We might all have slightly differing views of some of the lesser particulars of each of these events, but most would have little argument with the general truths conveyed. In that sense we might concur that these truths are "plain" and "clear" (at least to believers). On the other hand, some believers are convinced (as am I) that the "days" of creation are NOT literal 24 hour periods of time (Reflections #56 - "The 'Days' Of Creation: Literal or Figurative?"). This gets into the whole "old earth - young earth" debate. Both groups would agree that God created the heavens and earth, but they differ greatly over the methodology of that creation and the length of time involved (Reflections #475 - "Theory of Evolutionary Creation: Are Christianity and Evolution Compatible?"). Thus, "clear" biblical teaching can become "muddy" rather quickly, and division within the One Body is not far behind IF we allow these varying personal convictions to rise to the level of established eternal truths.

In Hugh's article he lists 25 things that he believes "The Bible Plainly Says." Over half of these statements are commonly held Christian beliefs. Few disciples of Christ, therefore, would quibble with the view that these are indeed "plainly" presented within the Scriptures. They are foundational tenets of our belief system; they are supporting pillars of our faith! In fact, there are only a couple of spots in the first half of Hugh's list where one might want to discuss his statements a bit further so as to establish a bit more clarity with respect to the doctrine being asserted as an established eternal truth. For example, in statement #8 Hugh wrote: "We are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:18-19)." Actually, that should be verses 8-9, not verses 18-19, but that is an easy mistake to make (I've done it plenty of times). What I might suggest to Hugh as an example of less than a "clear, plain" treatment of this passage is that he has left out of his statement the latter part of verse 8 and all of verse 9. "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast." Yes, we are saved by grace through faith. But, is it not equally "clear & plain" that this is a GIFT, and that no human effort of any kind can even begin to secure God's favor and His gift?! Nowhere on his list of 25 items is any of this ever mentioned.

One might be a bit puzzled as to why this omission occurred, but I think we begin to see the reason when we get to item #14. Hugh states, "The Bible Plainly Says ... that baptism saves us (1 Peter 3:21)." Further, item #13 says, "Baptism is essential to salvation." In #15, Hugh even suggests it is "plain" and "clear" that the methodology and medium are also critical: "Baptism is a burial in water." It seems kind of "clear" to me that we just may be adding some rules and regulations to this "gift of grace" that we freely receive "through faith." The need and/or necessity of these additions may be "plain" to Hugh, and to those who believe as he does, but it is most certainly NOT "plain" to far more believers within the One Body of Christ. The phrase found in 1 Peter 3:21 ("baptism now saves you") is stated by Hugh in his list as an absolute ("baptism saves us"), an absolute that he says the Bible plainly affirms. This dogma may be crystal clear to Hugh, but it is most certainly not to the vast majority of redeemed men and women. That phrase which he quoted from Peter does not mean what Hugh thinks it means. If the reader can tolerate a bit of "muddying" of Hugh's "crystal clear stream," I would encourage a reading of my following articles in which I delve into this passage in great depth, and in so doing demonstrate that what Hugh claims is "plain" is in fact just the opposite.

In statement #19 of Hugh's list, we find him declaring "The Bible Plainly Says ... that the Lord adds the saved to the church (Acts 2:47; Ephesians 5:23)." Well, yes and no. The latter passage informs us that "Christ is the head of the church ... and the Savior of the body." If one is in Christ Jesus, then one is in His "church" (that universal group of the saved of all time). In the first passage (Acts 2:47), we simply find that "the Lord was adding together day by day those who were being saved." Neither place "plainly says" that the Lord added the saved to the church. That is an error we can lay at the feet of the King James Version, for in Acts 2:47 it adds the phrase "to the church" to the text. Even the New King James Version, in a footnote, declares that this phrase does not appear in the Greek text. In point of fact, as Acts 5:14 in the Greek makes clear, the saved are added "to the Lord," and these redeemed ones, who are in Him, are thereby numbered with one another. What Hugh claims the Bible "plainly says" on this matter is false. The truth is, the Bible says no such thing. I have dealt with this misunderstanding and misapplication of these texts in Reflections #9 ("Added to the Lord"). The One who does the adding of the saved "to the Lord" is none other than the Holy Spirit, a fact which Paul declares in 1 Corinthians 12:13. Paul tells us the Spirit "plunges" us deeply into a union with the Lord, and all who have thusly been placed within Him are in that selected body of "numbered together ones." See my studies on this in Reflections #353 ("Immersed by One Spirit: Reflecting on 1 Corinthians 12:13"), Reflections #362 ("Putting On Jesus Christ: An Examination of Romans 13:14 and Galatians 3:27"), and Reflections #770 ("A Perversion of Immersion: Are We Baptized into the Church?"). My point within the context of this present study is simply that we need to be careful when we boldly declare that a particular cherished belief or practice is "plainly" stated in the Scriptures, for that may very well not be the case. What may be "plain" and "clear" to you or me, may NOT be "plain" or "clear" to other equally honest students and scholars of the Word.

In item #11 of Hugh's list of 25 things "The Bible Plainly Says," we find this: "That Christ is mankind's only way to God." Hugh lists two passages that he believes "plainly" teach this: John 14:6 and Acts 4:12. The first of these is a very well-known statement by Jesus to Thomas when the latter asked Jesus where He was about to go and how would His followers know the way to get there. Jesus told him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me." The second text is part of a statement Peter made to the Jewish elders and scribes in Jerusalem: "There is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved." To those of us who know Jesus, and who are blessed to have the writings of both the OT and NT in our possession, such statements are indeed "plain/clear" to us. In the broader context of these two statements, a context provided for us within the above inspired writings, and with almost 2000 years of scholarly reflection upon that context, we are made far more aware of God's plan of redemption, a plan that from the beginning found its focus and fulfillment in His Son and in the perfect sacrifice He became for our sins. So, again, for us these are statements that could not be clearer.

But, what about those who are seeking a relationship with God who do not have the benefit of the knowledge and understanding we have? How do they find the "way" to the Creator if they have never heard the name of Jesus or read anything in our Bible? I believe the Scriptures give us some insight into how God will deal with such persons. Yes, the "way" was made available to all through the Messiah ... even for those who may never have heard of Him!! Thus, Christ Jesus can indeed be "the only way to God," even for those who don't know of Him. How? Please read my study of this from the Scriptures: "God's Plan for the Unenlightened: Pondering the Parameters of Divine Acceptance of Human Response to Available Light" (Reflections #158). Yes, Jesus is "the Way," but in that "plain" statement there are questions raised by honest yet confused hearts that can't be answered by simply tossing a verse or two out and then saying, "It says what it means, and it means what it says." Such "plain/clear" statements may have great meaning for those who are blessed with context, but for those lacking that context there is most certainly no such clarity. My only point is this: we need to be aware of this disconnect in our presentation of Truth to others, rather than smugly pointing to a verse or two that are "as plain as day," and then criticizing and condemning those who do not see it as "clearly" and "plainly" as we do. "Plain" to you, maybe, but "as clear as mud" to them.

Let me give another example from Hugh's list of "plainly" stated biblical truths. In item #24 he declares that the Scriptures plainly say "that everlasting torment in hell is the punishment of the disobedient and unrighteous." There are some passages of Scripture (and he supplies four such passages - Matthew 25:41; Romans 2:5-11; 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10; Revelation 21:8) that have been interpreted this way for centuries, and this view that "immortal souls" will be tortured mercilessly forever and ever and ever, is a very familiar teaching of many within Christendom. It is also one of the most horrendous false doctrines there is, and for those willing to take the time to seriously examine the biblical evidence, this view is quite easily refuted. Thus, this view that Hugh claims is "plain," is in fact just plain wrong. I would urge the reader, if he/she is truly interested in examining the biblical evidence for this, to consider my following extensive and in-depth studies:

A week after Hugh Fulford posted his above article containing 25 things the Bible "Plainly Says," he posted yet another list: "Some More Things The Bible Plainly Says" (Tuesday, November 17). This list also contains 25 declarations that Hugh believes are as "plain" and "clear" as they can be, and upon which he believes one can establish authoritative eternal truths and practices. As in the previous 25 declarations, there are some with which almost all believers would have little disagreement, for a great many of them are simply direct quotes from the Scriptures. "We should remember our Creator in the days of our youth" (Ecclesiastes 12:1). Sound advice, though not often followed in one's youth. "We should not worry about tomorrow" (Matthew 6:34). More sound advice, yet we all struggle with this one, don't we? Especially these days! "It is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35). So true. "We will reap what we sow" (Galatians 6:7-9). We can all share personal examples of this in our own lives. This is known as "The Principle of Reciprocity" (Reflections #172). Again, few would quibble long over such general statements that life itself validates.

But, scattered within these statements (perhaps by design?!) are the sectarian and factional dogmas that have plagued the Body of Christ for centuries. Hugh presents them, as one would expect, as "plain" and "clear" statements, yet students of the Word can perceive quite easily the unseen and unspoken, yet underlying, traditions which such persons cherish and seek to impose as divine LAW upon the church. For example, in statement #23 he writes: "In order to be saved, there is something we all must do." Hmmm. Now, what do you suppose Hugh had in mind? That's easy: "Get thee to a baptistery ... and quickly!!" This is the sacramental view of this symbolic act, and I completely reject it (as do the Scriptures). I have refuted this repeatedly over the years in my Reflections (see my Topical Index under the heading "Baptism," where one will find 57 in-depth articles), in my book "Immersed By One Spirit: Rethinking the Purpose and Place of Baptism in NT Theology and Practice," and even in a published debate: "The Maxey-Hughes Debate," which deals with the relationship of baptism in water to God's grace and man's faith. To suggest that this symbolic act of faith is THE precise point of one's salvation is a long way from being the "clear" and "plain" teaching of God's Word that many sectarian sacramentalists would have you believe it to be.

In statement #17 of Hugh's second article he writes: "We are not to go beyond the doctrine of Christ" (2 John 9). Okay. Sounds simple enough. But, what do you suppose is meant by that "clear" and "plain" statement? Is this the teaching about Jesus Christ (if so, what is it?), or is this the doctrine that Jesus Himself taught (if so, what is it?)? This has been debated for centuries, which indicates it is not quite as "clear/plain" as some suppose. I would urge a reading of my following studies of this text: "'The Doctrine of Christ': The Use and Abuse of 2 John 9-11" (Reflections #84) and "The Gospel-Doctrine Debate: Are they the Same or Separate?" (Reflections #117). In #16, Hugh writes: "The early Christians engaged in 'speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in [their] heart(s) to the Lord'” (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16). What do you suppose Hugh believes is "clearly and plainly" stated here? That's right: if you dare to accompany your singing with musical instruments you are sinning and in danger of the fires of Hell. What could be more "plain"? Right? I wish Hugh would consider the following with regard to these two texts that the legalistic patternists have so woefully mishandled: "Legalism's Twin Proof-Texts: Allowing Tradition to Trump Truth" (Reflections #454).

In #13 Hugh wrote: "We must worship God in spirit and truth" (John 4:24). We have all heard this statement time and again, but what does this actually mean?! Most legalists latch on to this text to help support their "five acts of worship" in the "official" Sunday morning "worship service," with these five acts being highly regulated by assumed and deduced decrees (which God never said, but which they "infer" from that divine silence). Some might be surprised at the variety of interpretation and application of this "plainly" stated sentence. Check out my study titled "The Nature of True Worship: An Examination of John 4:19-24" (Reflections #112). In #15 Hugh writes: "The first century church observed the Lord’s Supper on the first day of the week" (Acts 20:7). Paul's experience in Troas that weekend is open to a great many different interpretations, for that passage is not even close to being "clear" or "plain" with respect to the when, the where, the how, and the how often of this "breaking of bread" (it is not referred to as "the Lord's Supper" in that passage). Was this Roman time or Jewish time? What was the normal practice of those saints in Troas? Do we know? Was this "Sunday only," or did the first century church observe this memorial meal daily (as Acts 2 seems to suggest, and which is affirmed by early church historians)? Again, I have written extensively on this to demonstrate that what some claim to be a statement "clear as day" with regard to frequency of this meal is anything but "clear as day." Consider my study: "The Great Time Debate: Were the Events in Acts 20:7-12 Reckoned in Jewish or Roman Time?" (Reflections #173). I have dealt with the whole frequency matter in a number of places, as well as other aspects of our observance of this symbolic event, but I would especially recommend my book on all of these "plain" particulars the patternists seek to make LAW: "One Bread, One Body: An Examination of Eucharistic Expectation, Evolution and Extremism."

My point? There is much within the written Word that may seem on the surface to be very "plain" and "clear." But we must be very careful here. Surface scrutiny can be deceptive. What may seem to be clear at a glance may just be anything but clear with much deeper biblical examination. Hugh, and those like him, are pushing several points of view that are quite dangerous to the cause of Christ Jesus. Their views, in their own sight, are "clear as day," and they profess boldly that what they teach is "what the Bible plainly says" on the matter. I would simply urge those who read Hugh's professions to peruse the Scriptures a bit more carefully than he has done, for much of his teaching is contrary to what the Scriptures actually teach. In too many instances, Hugh has fallen into the trap of proclaiming his sect's traditions as divine Truths. They are far from it. And, for the sake of fairness, I would encourage the reader to do exactly the same with anything and everything that I teach. Examine my writings and teachings very carefully, have your Bible open when you do, pick apart everything I say and hold it up for inspection in light of the inspired NT and OT Scriptures. If I am wrong, please show me. I have changed before; I will most certainly change again if my teaching can be demonstrated by careful exegesis to be false. Any and all of us who place our teaching out there for the public to see, hear, and read, should be willing to have that teaching examined critically and in great depth, and we should never hesitate to change that teaching if we are shown where we have mishandled Truth in order to elevate personal or party perceptions, preferences, and practices. Thus, I challenge you to challenge me on all I teach. If we are honest seekers of Truth, we should expect nothing less! "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another" (Proverbs 27:17).


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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Alabama:

Al, I found your thoughts in Reflections #810 ("Our Obligation to Our Oppressors: Jeremiah's Difficult Directive to the Dispersed") to be counter-cultural and quite challenging, as God's Truth often is! I wanted to read more about this, so I went to the issue of Reflections which you referenced in your article, the one which begins with a quote from Charlton Heston (Reflections #345 - "Concealed Carry Christians: Pistol Packin' Pastors and Parishioners"). The attitudes he expressed, and which you strongly supported in that article, seem to me to be in direct contradiction to your present writing in issue #810 of your Reflections. Although I am supportive of the right to bear arms, yet those people I know personally who are strong advocates for "gun rights" do not make me feel more safe, but actually less so! I'd like to hear more compassion expressed for those who have horrifically lost loved ones to gun violence, including completely innocent children, and a greater emphasis placed on exploring ways to try and limit such violent behavior. Thank you, brother!

From a Reader in Arkansas:

Brother Al, I would like to order five copies of your book "Down, But Not Out: A Study of Divorce and Remarriage in Light of God's Healing Grace," if you have any left. Let me know if you have them, and if you do, please send them to me at ----. Thanks, brother. May God bless your ministry. I still hope to meet you some day!

From a Reader in Georgia:

Brother Al, I just finished reading your article titled "Our Obligation to Our Oppressors." Very timely! Thank you. Now, I just hope I can live up to that lofty goal you described in this study.

From a Reader in Colorado:

Al, Thank you so much for this much needed message. Much love to you!

From a Minister/Author in Mississippi:

Very interesting article, Al. It just so happens that I was thinking about the same passage in Jeremiah (29:7), and I am preaching on it this Sunday. Keep up the good work.

From a Minister in Tennessee:

My wife and I are going through Jeremiah in our morning devo. We are over half the way through. Judah did not want to believe Jeremiah's "rantings." We have reached chapters 38-39, where Jeremiah is told by the king to keep their conversation private. The king gives Jeremiah the story he is to tell, which is a lie. Jeremiah goes along with it and obeys the king. When I go back through these books of the Bible, I always find something I have forgotten, or some detail given that I didn't catch in previous readings. While reading all this, it reminded me of what is happening here in the USA. Our future looks bleak. Al, please keep up your good work. Some will disagree, some will not. May God have mercy on us all.

From a Minister in Canada:

Great article, Al. It adds to and gives a view of what I have been thinking about for some time. If we all truly lived by the creed of Jesus as given in Mark 12:28-32, we would indeed be a powerful witness to all those around us. It is a daily part of our responsibility to our God and Father to obey this instruction He gave His Son to give to us. That obedience and transformation is a work in progress, and we probably won't be perfect in doing it until our resurrection. There is one great result in our progressively carrying out the creed of Jesus in our lives, and that is: "Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this, love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love" (1 John 4:15-18). This is the key for us to live by: perfect love casts out fear. Indeed! When we have that kind of love, we will not fear what any man may do to us as we spread the Good News message. We won't fear death, or any trial or tribulation that is soon coming as this age comes to an end. With perfect love we will be doing whatever is necessary to assist and help anyone in need regardless of their beliefs, orientation, or race. That perfect love comes to us progressively as we strive to be totally committed to loving our God and Father with all that we are.

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