Issue #92 -------
December 15, 2003
The beginning of thought is in disagreement:
not only with others, but also with ourselves.
--- Eric Hoffer (1902-1983)
The Passionate State of Mind --- aphorism #266
Occasionally, one of my Reflections articles will strike a nerve or rattle a cage. When that happens, I receive a flood of mail ... some agreeing with my thoughts, some disagreeing. Such was the case with my last issue -- Salvation By Perfect Perception: Is Redemption Knowledge-Based? Many readers wrote to give their personal testimonies, sharing their former bondage to legalistic thinking and the joy of their liberation. Others wrote to express their conviction that salvation is still very much knowledge-based. Thus, they were somewhat troubled by my perspectives on this matter. A few, still bound to and deeply entrenched in law and tradition, simply wrote to condemn me for daring to differ with them.
Some of these testimonies are quite moving and inspiring. A few of the questions posed by those who differ with me, and who evidenced a spirit of love and respect, are worthy of a reasoned response. Therefore, I have chosen to devote this present issue of Reflections to these reader responses. I appreciate each of you who took the time to write and share your thoughts with me ... even those of you who presently differ with me. It is only when disciples who differ choose to lovingly and respectfully dialogue with one another on such matters that we will come closer together as One Body. I won't waste my time on those merely seeking to engage in sectarian squabbles and factional feuding, but if a fellow disciple is truly seeking greater understanding via legitimate dialogue, I will gladly engage them in serious study of the Scriptures.
Challenges of Those who Differ
Sadly, there will always be a radical rabble among the people of God who are devoted to defaming and destroying any and all who fail to parrot the party shibboleths. Over the years I have attracted my fair share of such malicious militants. It just goes with the territory. For example, one such watchdog in the state of Indiana, a man in the Non-Institutional faction of the Churches of Christ who has hounded me for years with an almost pathological devotion, wrote, "You apparently want your readers to conclude that you believe that baptism is necessary for salvation, and yet ... you do NOT regard baptism as necessary, although you want to tickle the ears of your readers to let them think that is your view." Amazing, is it not, that some, who have never even met me, believe they know my own beliefs better than I?! Anyone who has bothered to study my writings over the years knows that such a charge is pure nonsense. I would simply suggest such persons consider the following evidence:
These few excerpts from my published writings should be sufficient to demonstrate the false nature of the above accusations against me. Why some persist in promoting such false claims ... what motivates the hearts of such people ... I will leave to the reader to ponder.
Turning from caustic critics to sincere seekers, a few of the readers wrote to express a differing viewpoint from what they perceived mine to be in my last Reflections. As a representative example, I will provide an excerpt from a reader in Maryland who has always been very supportive, but who was somewhat troubled by my latest article. She wrote: "I love you, brother, and appreciate your work, as you know. I rarely disagree with you, but I just don't know about this. The common motivation that I can see in the examples of baptisms in Acts is not just obedience from the heart, but an expectation of an outcome. The crowd at Pentecost was told to expect their sins to be forgiven and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Paul was told to expect his sins to be washed away. It's not about perfect understanding, it's about trusting God to do what He says He will do. .... Again, I do not believe one needs perfect understanding to receive God's awesome and free gift of salvation. One does need to accept this free gift in the perfect and simple way God has set out for us to do so, and to expect that God will do what He has promised."
The reader goes on to state that if a person has not truly comprehended the true expectations associated with immersion, then that person must be informed as to what those expectations are .... and we must then "rebaptize such disciples." I understand where this reader is coming from, and fully appreciate the argument being made, but once again this begs the question: What level of knowledge is redemptive? How much must one understand in order to receive the promises of God? Those on the day of Pentecost who were immersed were promised the gift of the Holy Spirit. How many of those people do you suppose truly understood the full import of that promise? How many today understand the significance of this gift and its many attendant blessings? Does lack of perception, however, preclude the reception of the promise by genuine, obedient believers? It is my belief that it does not. I can assure you that at the age of eleven I did not even begin to comprehend the gift of the Holy Spirit (and I still have many questions!), but there is no doubt in my mind that when I obeyed the command to be immersed I received the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. Did I fully perceive the significance at age eleven of "remission of sins"? Probably not. I have grown significantly in that knowledge and in appreciation for that blessing, but my lack of understanding did not, in my opinion, preclude the bestowal of the blessing of forgiveness.
Let me give an actual example from a few years back. I had studied with a woman and her husband for quite some time and they finally came to the point where they requested to be immersed. Yes, they had the expectation that their sins would be washed away. In fact, the husband made the comment following the baptism that I might want to change the water as it was pretty polluted with all his former sins!! A few months later the woman came to me and said she needed to be baptized again. I asked her why, and she said her sins had been piling up since her baptism, and she needed them washed away again. Obviously, she had not fully comprehended the significance of that immersion and the blessings associated with it. Did her lack of awareness of this specific area negate and invalidate her previous immersion? Should I have baptized her again after explaining more perfectly the blessings of her act of faith and obedience? It was my view, and still is, that she did not need to be rebaptized, she merely needed to grow and mature in her understanding of what took place that day.
When men or movements begin demanding a certain level of understanding of certain specific doctrines and practices before one can genuinely be regarded as a disciple of Christ, or before one can even become a child of the Father, the door is flung open for the formation of factions fostering exclusivism and isolationism, which in effect shuns those who are deemed the "unenlightened." I believe this to be a deplorable situation found far too frequently in the Body of Christ. At present, with regard to our perceptive abilities, we all "see in a mirror dimly" (1 Cor. 13:12). Brother Hugo McCord, in his translation of the NT documents, renders this phrase this way: "we see indistinctly." Must each new insight necessitate a rebaptism? If so, then we had better make certain we are never far from a baptistery, because if we're truly growing in respect to our salvation (1 Peter 2:2) we're going to be visiting it quite often!
Ideally, all preachers and teachers will proclaim perfectly every aspect of every doctrine, and, ideally, every respondent will understand all aspects of every doctrine. Realistically, however, we know this does not generally happen. We are flawed, finite humans seeking to help other flawed, finite humans perceive the intricacies of the Infinite. We will always fall short. Thus, what level of perception will ultimately prove redemptive? 80%? 75%? Or, must it be 100%? If salvation is by virtue of the depth of my own understanding, then I'm in big trouble .... and so are each of you.
Testimonies of Those who Agree
There were far more readers who expressed appreciation and agreement with the thoughts expressed in the last issue of Reflections, however. Indeed, the response was overwhelming. One subscriber wrote, "Yes, I am sure some on the mailing list will take exception to what you wrote. However, I think you wrote on a very necessary topic. That topic is an aspect of our legal heritage that needs to be addressed. Thanks for having the courage to speak up on it!" Many people bravely "bared their souls" in their emails, sharing their own journey out of the bondage to legalistic thinking & behavior and into the freedom of God's marvelous grace. These testimonies were very moving and inspiring, and I would like to simply share several of them with you. I believe they will encourage you in your own spiritual journey.
FIRST --- One brother in Christ shared the following with me: "Al, you are dealing with issues that are dear to my heart. I became a Christian after getting out of the Army in '70. I was not raised in the Church of Christ. My motivation was: if I don't do it God will send me to hell. That is why I got into preaching. I went to Freed-Hardeman, married, preached for a few years, went through a divorce and found out the brotherhood did not want to touch me with a ten foot pole. I have been baptized seven times. One of those times was when I had just arrived at a new congregation to be their preacher! They were a little taken aback that their preacher wanted to be baptized! I have been tormented with 'getting it right.' I have tormented others to make sure they 'did it right.' I even pestered one of my classmates at FHC because his toe came out of the water when his head went under! Thank God I am now seeing through the eyes of my Father in heaven. I now believe my first baptism was okay. I believe I am okay because of my trust in the Messiah and His righteousness given to me. Keep up the good work, brother."
Oh how we torment ourselves and others by such legalistic thinking! I am thankful this brother found his way into the grace of our Father. In his email to me he also wrote, "I have three lessons that Rick Atchley presented at Pepperdine on baptism that deal with this same issue of knowing everything about baptism before you are baptized. If you are interested, I can send them to you. One of my passions is to unite all believers in Christ. I have appreciated Rick Atchley, Edward Fudge and you for your insights." I was indeed interested, and am enjoying Rick's thoughts on this matter. Notice the following comments by brother Atchley from his second lesson:
Brother E.G. Sewell wrote the following in the Gospel Advocate in the year 1903 -- "People that have been brought up under the error that sinners are pardoned before baptism may easily make that mistake and yet render full obedience to the gospel. They may believe with the heart, repent and then be baptized because they know that God commands it. In such a case their being mistaken as to when the promise is theirs would not, we think, hinder the blessing." In the year 1862, J.W. McGarvey wrote, with regard to baptism and one's understanding, "It would be most unreasonable to suppose that God would withhold the blessing simply because I do not know I'm entitled to it."
Rick Atchley sums up his second lesson with these thoughts: "Now, sheer consistency argues that if someone has to be re-baptized because they did not understand they received the promise of forgiveness at their baptism, they must also be re-baptized if they did not understand they received the Holy Spirit at their baptism. If you're going to take that position then you better take the position that if there's any promise at baptism that you didn't understand completely and well, then you'd better get baptized again. I happen to believe the born again believer receives the Holy Spirit at baptism whether he understands it or recognizes it or not, because it's based on God's will and God's promise and not on the new convert's limited understanding. And in the same way the baptism of a believer in response to Christ results in the remission of sins. God knows what baptism's for, and the efficacy depends on His infallible promise, not on human understanding. Or to put it as bluntly as I know how, God's not limited by how smart we are. And aren't you glad? Consider this, folks. Now, really, this is simple. Almost everything in your New Testament written about baptism was written to people who had already been baptized. They were continuing their education of understanding what happened at baptism. Have you, like me, learned a whole lot about baptism after you were baptized? Do you think God wants us constantly worried that our baptism wasn't good enough because our understanding wasn't complete? Does the efficacy of baptism depend on how smart we are?"
SECOND --- A sister in Christ who lives in Louisiana wrote the following: "I was immersed when I was six years old. I remember waking my mother up and telling her I needed to be baptized. I am not sure why she decided I was in earnest at that time, but I am grateful. I thank you for your latest Reflections article. I have had many people tell me that I surely didn't understand baptism at six years of age and should be re-immersed. I understood enough, though, that I knew Christ asked me to do it. I understood that I would be lost without it, and I understood it was to be an immediate action. ..... I have recently been working with a counselor at the church I attend here in Louisiana. One day, when we were in session, I said to her (about baptism), 'Well, I was really young.' She said, 'So?! It doesn't take a great intellect to know you need the Savior!' What a blessing that was for me. What a blessing to be able to stand on the promise given when I was six years old. Did I understand the promises made at the time? Not in the sense that I could list them out for you. Was I a great intellect at six? No, I was just a kid who needed Jesus to survive. I am grateful that the Spirit prompted me then. I think that we get so technical that we forget that even the apostles didn't understand Jesus, and they lived, slept and ate with Him on a daily basis. Many times Jesus was frustrated with them about that ... but, that didn't change His love for them or their salvation through Him."
THIRD --- A reader who is with Texas Tech University wrote the following: "I think your essay on baptism and perfect knowledge is squarely on the mark. Isn't it a shame that Austin McGary and Firm Foundation diverted many of us from the good position of the earlier restoration pioneers? How can we not see that the prerequisite to scriptural immersion is faith, not knowledge. If we believe, and are baptized because of that faith, the remission of sins is promised, as well as the gift of the Spirit. As you point out, the fact that some are misled as to the point of salvation does not bind the hands of God who has promised to forgive on submissive faith. It is God who does the remitting, not our knowledge or our understanding. To turn the promise into a legalistic formula is to distort the scripture, and that is what many of us have been guilty of. I am comforted to know that many immersed believers outside the denomination we call the Church of Christ will greet us in heaven, 'saved by the blood.'"
FOURTH --- An optometrist in Kentucky, with whom I have grown close over the years as I have observed his journey out of legalism and into grace, wrote, "As it is one of your true joys when you have interaction with other believers from around the globe, so it is to me also when I have interaction with those who have come out of the bonds of legalism, or who are reading the Bible for the first time without legalistic glasses on. Keep up the good work!" One simply cannot help but be encouraged and uplifted and inspired by such daily dialogue with our fellow life-travelers. It is truly refreshing and renewing.
This dear brother in Christ, whose name is Dr. Michael Morris, used to be associated with the Non-Institutional faction of the Churches of Christ. Through much prayerful study and sound counsel from the Word, he and his wife have come to know freedom in Christ Jesus. I have rejoiced many times during our association as I witnessed their gradual spiritual liberation. Michael wrote, "Incidentally, Al, you may use my name. There was a time, when I first emerged from legalism, that I did not want my name put in a Reflections article as I knew some of the people on your mailing list and I was afraid of their reaction to me since I had 'changed.' However, most of those people have now either 'marked' me or cut me off, so I don't see that it makes any difference. I am certainly not ashamed of my beliefs!" I applaud Michael's conviction and courage. I believe it is time for the redeemed of the Lord to SAY SO (Psalm 107:2), and to cease being intimidated into silence by those who refuse to leave their legalistic bondage. Peter, at one point in the course of his long and distinguished ministry for the Lord, "feared the party of the circumcision" (Galatians 2:12) and thus was party to fragmenting the One Body of Christ. Being fearful of militant partyists and sectarians will only facilitate the further dismemberment of the Body of Christ. It is time (indeed, past time) for those who have experienced the joys of freedom in Christ to take a stand .... and to speak out boldly. I thank Michael for coming forward and doing just that! He will be viciously attacked for doing so, but may he "Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (Matthew 5:12). Here is some of Michael's testimony in his lengthy letter to me:
From a Reader in Kentucky:
Where can I get a downloadable copy of your book Down, But Not Out? I am impressed with your scholarly, fair treatment of Scripture. I am especially impressed with your confidence to present views which are not necessarily accepted by the majority of our faith.
From a Reader in Texas:
Dear Bro Al, Just a quick little note to thank you for all your wonderful work on the Net. I am sure the works spill over into all facets of your work. I hope you and yours have a fine season to ring out the old year, and look forward to the new year as an ever upward rewarding future. Again, THANK YOU, and stay the course. God love you!
From a Reader in Texas:
Al, Your Reflections #90 -- "Examining the Exception Clause" -- was excellent. I began to learn the truth about Matthew 19:9 when I heard one time that the phrase "committeth adultery" was originally translated "breaketh wedlock" by John Wycliffe and William Tyndale (1385 and 1535). I contacted the Bible museum at Eureka Springs, Arkansas to get copies of these translations. Sure enough, Wycliffe translated "to break a vow" and Tyndale translated "breaking wedlock." He understood Jesus to be referring to breaking marriage vows, and not to any sexual act. The Great Bible (1540) read as Tyndale's. It was the Geneva Bible (1576) that brought in the word that came to be "adultry." The Bishop's Bible (1568 and 1602) translated "adultry" as we spell it today ("adultery"). All this fits the Catholic idea of a sacrament. I thought this was extremely interesting.
From a Reader in Florida:
Brother Al, It was back in 1978 that I began my study on the scriptural aspect of divorce. In that time I have come to three conclusions. (1) There is no universal agreement among brethren on every aspect of this issue. (2) The OT DOES NOT authorize divorce "for any cause." Further, I believe that the OT and NT teach the same thing. Deut. 24:1 is explained in Is. 50:1. (3) I find NO scriptural foundation for the concept of "continuous adultery" committed by a married couple.
From a Reader in Mississippi:
Al, Thank you so much for your words of comfort and wisdom (Reflections #91) offered to one in need. A couple years back, I found myself in the same shoes as the brother in this article. Such grief can be debilitating, as it was for me at that time. Thanks be to God, I was resolved to study and get to the bottom of the matter. Through His grace, He allowed me to find the very truths you've expressed in Reflections #91. "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God" (2 Cor. 1:3-4). Thanks for all you do!
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