Issue #91 -------
December 10, 2003
If a man hasn't discovered something
that he will die for, he isn't fit to live.
--- Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)
A Speech in Detroit, Michigan --- 23 June 1963
As I have oft declared, one of the true joys of this ministry is the interaction I have with believers from all over the world. Each day is a spiritual adventure; each day brings some unique contact with a searching soul intent upon greater understanding of the Word. Many people find renewal and uplift from retreats, workshops and lectureships .... all of which are wonderful for those who benefit from them. MY encouragement and renewal, however, come in part from the daily encounters with my brethren via these in-depth dialogues. They keep me refreshed and filled with a sense of excitement and purpose. I thank God for this electronic avenue for fellowship and reflection. I also thank each of you who continue to share your insights, ask questions, seek advice, or who just need someone to listen during a difficult time. This medium provides instant access to God's family, and to healing and encouragement.
I receive a great many requests for specialized Bible studies, and occasionally I like to share selected ones in the context of these Reflections. An email I received just a few days ago falls into that category. I believe you will be touched by the tragic situation of this brother in Christ and his deep desire to better understand God's will for our lives so as to deal with his distress.
Salvation By Knowledge?
How much must one know in order to be saved? What level of knowledge is redemptive? Will I be lost if I do not possess perfect perception of all doctrinal matters relevant to my inclusion in the One Body and my walk with the Lord? These are questions that trouble many people. And they are issues about which some disciples trouble and disturb others. If I have failed to grasp the full import of some doctrinal matter, will this cause me to be lost? If my practice is not precise, am I doomed to eternal destruction? Some believe that anyone who falls short of complete comprehension of all Truth will be cast into the lake of fire. If that is true, is there hope for any of us? Who among us dares to declare infallible insight into all Truth? If such is required for salvation, then none are saved!
It seems to me that those who claim perfect understanding of all biblical matters pertaining to one's salvation are standing dangerously close to the brink of an abominable arrogance. Paul cautioned us with these words: "Knowledge makes arrogant" (1 Corinthians 8:1). Literally, Paul says it "puffs us up!" Puffing himself up is what a bullfrog does just before he croaks! We can become swelled with the pride of our own understanding. That hardly seems redemptive. It may even cause us to "croak!" Indeed, Paul later wrote to the same disciples, "If I know all mysteries and all knowledge ... but do not have love, I am nothing!" (1 Corinthians 13:2).
Please don't misunderstand -- knowledge has its place in the redemptive process. There are things we must know. "He who comes to God must believe that He is" (Hebrews 11:6). Obviously, we can't know all things pertaining to God, but we must come to know HE IS. "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge" (Hosea 4:6). "For I delight in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings" (Hosea 6:6). Yes, knowledge of God is vital. We must also come to know Jesus Christ as Savior! The question is not really, "Is knowledge necessary?" The answer is an obvious YES. The real question is, "How MUCH knowledge is necessary?" Most will agree on the "major" matters (existence of God, deity of Jesus Christ, etc.); the real rub comes when matters of understanding trickle down to the particulars of our personal responses, beliefs and practices. What degree of knowledge or understanding with regard to music in worship is redemptive, for example? What degree of knowledge or understanding with regard to the use of the treasury is redemptive? How about what can or can't be done in a "church building?" We could go on and on. Can we lack knowledge in some of these areas and still be saved? Can we differ in understanding and practice with others in such matters and still be brethren? It is my conviction we can. To suggest otherwise is merely to validate the continued fragmentation of the family of God over differing personal preferences and perceptions.
Let me share with you an email I received just a few days ago (which I use with the reader's permission). The question posed to me comes from a pained and troubled heart. This brother has just experienced a tremendous personal tragedy, and I hope each of you will keep him, and his family, in your prayers.
"Sunday morning (November 30), my uncle (who is a kind and generous man, who was baptized believing he was already saved) was shot in the heart and killed by five 'thugs.' I desperately need to know the answer to this question -- Does a person have to understand that baptism is 'for the remission of sins' in order to be forgiven of sins? Alexander Campbell accepted anyone who was immersed with faith in Christ, as did David Lipscomb and the Gospel Advocate. The more I think about it, the more I believe it makes sense that a person doesn't have to necessarily understand all the promises of what will come as long as he is trying to follow God. But, I don't know if that is my grief talking or not. I would appreciate very much an in-depth Reflections article on this, and responses from readers to see what they think. Please write when you can, and I would ask that you please remember my family in your prayers. Thank you for your guidance and thoughts on this subject."
First, my heart goes out to this brother in Christ because of the tragic death of his uncle. I am sure the many readers of these Reflections will be lifting up this family in daily prayer. These are very violent times in which we live; few of us have not been touched in some way by similar circumstances. May our Father comfort you, brother, and may His grace be upon you and your family!
It appears that some of this brother's concern stems from his understanding of Romans 6:17. Paul informs those who have been delivered from their slavery to sin that they are now servants of righteousness (vs. 18). They should consider themselves "dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus" (vs. 11). It was also important for them to realize that they are no longer "under law, but under grace" (vs. 14). As those alive to God in Christ, living in grace and servants of righteousness, they must daily present themselves as "slaves for obedience" to their Lord and Master (vs. 16). In the context of this discussion we find the expression of thankfulness contained in verse 17 --- although formerly in bondage, they have become free through "obedience from the heart" to that "form of doctrine," or "teaching," to which they were entrusted (NIV) or "delivered" (NKJV), or to which they "were committed" (NASB).
Obedience "from the heart" is in direct contrast to a shallow obedience for the sake of appearance. This difference is very dramatically portrayed by Paul in his words to slaves in Ephesians 6:5-6. Their service and obedience was to be "in the sincerity of your heart" ... "not by way of eyeservice" ... but "doing the will of God from the heart." This speaks to motivation. Paul preached unto the Romans the gospel of grace, but what was their motivation for obeying? Did it come from the heart? Paul suggests it did. As R.C.H. Lenski points out, in his commentary on Romans, this obedience "was not a mere form" (p. 425). They did not respond merely by submitting to ritual, but truly obeyed from the heart. This is a vital distinction.
Form and ritual matter little if the heart is not involved. Paul commends these brethren for obeying the gospel "from the heart." They didn't just go through the motions; they didn't just put on a show. They committed themselves fully to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Some people today believe Paul's phrase "form of doctrine" (Romans 6:17) has reference to the rite of immersion. Even though such is discussed in the early verses of this chapter, I nevertheless believe this is too restrictive and limiting an interpretation. Brother Moses E. Lard concurs with this assessment, writing, "The expression tupon didaches is sometimes rendered type of doctrine, and held to denote baptism. But this is too special. The expression includes baptism, but does not stand for it exclusively. The Scriptures should never be forced to teach what is not clearly in them" (p. 214).
In other words, it is not the intricacies and particulars of religious form that Paul has in view in this passage .... it is the motivation of the heart of the one who responds to the message of God's grace. There is no question as to the importance of obedience. No one will argue with that. After all, Jesus Christ has become "to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation" (Hebrews 5:9). But, it must be obedience from the heart. It must be genuine, heart-felt, sincere!
Is it possible for obedience to be "from the heart," and yet, at the same time, be lacking in complete or perfect understanding? If the latter is the case, does that invalidate, and make null and void, the former? In other words, is obedience from the heart worthless without accompanying understanding of the mind? This is really the question of our hurting brother who has lost his uncle. What level of understanding is redemptive? Which carries more weight in obedience -- sincerity of heart or clarity of mind? Are promises of God withheld from His children until such time as they fully comprehend every aspect of the doctrine and practice pertaining to the promise? If this is true, then I doubt anyone has, or ever will, obtain any promise proffered by our Father. If redemption, justification, sanctification, and salvation are conditioned upon a response of faith accompanied with perfect perception .... we are without hope.
I was almost twelve years old when I was immersed into Christ. How much did I understand about baptism at that time in my life? Very little, I can assure you. However, I loved the Lord and I knew it was something He wanted me to do. Because I loved Him, I obeyed Him. After all, Jesus said, "If you love Me, you will keep My commandments" (John 14:15). He also said, "You are My friends, if you do what I command you" (John 15:14), and "If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love" (John 15:10). I kept His command. I therefore obtained the promise. Could I have written a doctoral dissertation on the spiritual significance of immersion at the age of eleven? Of course not. And thank God I didn't have to! Knowledge is something we GROW in as we develop in our relationship with Him. Peter characterizes new converts to Christ as "newborn babes" who are to "GROW in respect to salvation" (1 Peter 2:2). Peter further urges us to "GROW in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 3:18). There is much we don't know as we enter Christ and take those first tentative steps in our walk with Him. As one matures in the faith, however, insight will follow. Must we go back and repeat baptism every time we come to a better perception of what that immersion entailed? Of course not. We'd be constantly walking that "sawdust trail" if that was the case. If we "obey from the heart," fuller understanding will follow. Perfect understanding, however, will never come to us .... not this side of Heaven, anyway!
Let me illustrate this principle from Acts 2:38 -- "Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." How many new converts do you know who could, at the moment of their baptism, explain the nature and significance of the gift of the Holy Spirit? Isn't that also a promise conditioned upon one's response of faith as evidenced in immersion? If we don't fully understand all aspects of this promised gift of the Holy Spirit, do we therefore NOT receive that gift?! I know of ELDERS and PREACHERS who can't explain what the gift of the Holy Spirit is. Are they thereby devoid of the Spirit? Is perfect understanding required before God will dispense the promised gift? I don't believe anyone would suggest such. Therefore, WHY -- within the parameters of the very same verse -- do some demand perfect understanding of all aspects of immersion before the promise of forgiveness of sins is conferred?! If one is "obedient FROM THE HEART" ... if one loves the Lord and obeys the command ... is this not sufficient unto the reception of the promise? I believe it is!
Yes, we who are proclaimers of Truth, should, in our teaching, emphasize the fullness of the purpose and significance of immersion to those whom we are teaching. But, if they fail to fully grasp it, or if one comes to us who WAS immersed into Christ Jesus because they understood it was commanded by Him, and they loved Him so much they wanted to "obey from the heart," and yet they didn't fully comprehend some of the blessings associated with their compliance, I would personally not suggest they had to "do over" the rite of baptism. Instead, I would simply help them to grow in the knowledge and appreciation of the significance of that teaching they had already "obeyed from the heart," and help them to perceive a bit more than they had previously the promise that our Lord had conferred upon them when they responded in faith to His command. May one be baptized apart from perfect perception of the full significance of that action and still be saved? My answer is an emphatic YES!! The gifts of our Father are not conditioned upon the perfect insight of His children. They are conditioned upon LOVE. He loves us and we love Him ... and the blessings flow!
This obsession on the part of some legalists with the exact second God imparts some gift, or the level of comprehension of the respondent, misses the whole point of God's love and grace, and it also misses the point of man's faith. Thank God we have a Father who judges hearts, not the measure of our intellect. If redemption is via knowledge, we are all lost.
From a University Professor in Kentucky:
I am a Christian in a "Bible belt" Church of Christ who is also trying to make a difference. As a computer science professor, I look forward to your Reflections as opposed to the technical, bureaucratic correspondence I otherwise have to deal with on a daily basis. As soon as your newsletter comes, I read it no matter what other pressing work I have to do (during office hours or not). And I am not an email person, who "Fwds" and spends leisure time on the Internet or emailing. Even within the church around here, it is just so energy-zapping to continuously have to deal with the issues that continually plague the congregations in this area of the country.
From a Reader in Nevada:
This "Examining the Exception Clause" certainly gives us a lot to think about. As soon as I began reading it I saw where it was going and began wondering why I had never heard it explained like this. It is not an "exception" clause because God never gave us an exception to his ideal for marriage. Of course, His ideal is forever. Question: In your thinking, when "John" is responsible for the breakdown of the marriage, and "Joan" divorces "John," is "Joan" then guilty of any sin if she marries again? Also, it is good to see others interested in getting these Reflections into book form. Thanks and God bless.
From a Reader in Louisiana:
Al, In your example of Tom and Debbie, is Tom free to remarry, or should he choose to remain single because his marriage with Debbie was broken? Thank you for your help with this matter.
From a Reader in Georgia:
Thank you for some thoughtful insight on Matthew 19:9. One question you did not address, though, is: after assessing the blame for the breakup of a marriage, does anyone have the right to remarry?
From a Reader in New Mexico:
I've long wondered why people use this as an exception clause. I don't see it that way at all. In my own humble opinion, Jesus is simply being precise in His speech, pointing out that if you divorce a woman you make her an adulteress, unless, of course, she already is. By way of analogy, let's suppose a scenario where if a woman should find herself without a husband, her only means of survival would be through thievery. Then let's suppose a married woman turns into a professional thief, and her husband says, "I can't stand her criminal lifestyle anymore. I'm divorcing her." In this analogy, divorcing a woman would GENERALLY turn her into a thief, but for this particular woman it doesn't, because she already was one. So the observation is, "Whoever divorces his wife turns her into a thief (unless, of course, she's already a thief)." Anyway, I thought I'd share that, because I've never thought (to continue the analogy) that this implies thievery is an acceptable reason for divorce. It's not an exception clause; it's just a very simple statement of observation. It's a logical statement, not a legal one. Does that sound about right to you?
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