by Al Maxey

Issue #612 ------- April 4, 2014
I believe that every right implies a
responsibility; every opportunity, an
obligation; every possession, a duty.

J. D. Rockefeller, Jr. (1874-1960)

Opportunity for Obedience
Legalistic Redefining of God's Grace

Whenever I do an article, or series of articles, as I have recently, on the theme of salvation by grace through faith, I invariably receive a flood of emails, letters and phone calls from those who are less than pleased with my perspective. One individual declared, "I'm sick of hearing about grace. It's overrated. Liberals like you need to get back to preaching obedience to the Gospel." Tragically, too many within ultra-conservative, fundamentalist sects have so emphasized human effort as an essential in the salvation process that the concept of a free gift of divine grace is not only unfathomable to them, but in some ways even repugnant. To proclaim, as I have, that there is nothing one can accomplish, nor any act one can perform, to effect one's salvation, immediately raises a ruckus from the ranks of those rigid religionists convinced that grace/faith are only efficacious when combined with certain acts performed by men (baptism in water being the primary act in view). The reason they become so upset over our emphasizing God's "free gift" of grace, therefore, is that it tends to undermine their own emphasis on baptism in water as the essential element in the salvation process. This, they cannot, and will not, tolerate; it will invariably, and almost immediately, motivate them to militancy.

Let me begin by stressing once again that I have never declared that obedience to the will of our God is unnecessary in our daily walk with Him (although some continue to insist this is my belief). The debate, rather, centers around whether man's obedience is necessary to initially embrace salvation, or whether man's obedience is necessary to continually evidence that salvation. I believe it is the latter; those who oppose my teaching on this believe it is the former. We both believe it is essential that men live in obedience to God's will; where we differ is in our understanding of what that means, as well as its ultimate application to our relationship with the Lord. Those who take the theological position that obedience is required to initially accept God's gift of grace will quote such passages as Hebrews 5:9, which states Jesus "became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation." Although they take this to mean one's salvation is conditioned upon prior (and then continued) obedience to the Lord, I have shown rather convincingly, I believe, that this is not truly the teaching of this passage (see: Reflections #610 -- "Purchasing the Gift of Grace: Does Man's Obedience bring about the Glorious Gift of God's Grace?").

Others suggest that in order to be saved one must "obey the Gospel" (a phrase with which many of us are very familiar, having heard it repeatedly from the pulpit during the obligatory "invitation"). However, how does one obey "good news"?! I have examined this in some depth in Reflections #501 -- "Can We OBEY the Gospel? Reflecting Anew on Three NT Texts." In connection with this, I would also suggest a careful reading of Reflections #598 -- "Earning Salvation by Obedience: A Few Reflections on Why Disciples Obey." Some point to Paul's desire to bring the Gentiles to "the obedience of faith," which they are convinced indicates the necessity of obedience for the obtaining of salvation. I deal with Paul's expression in Reflections #157 -- "Obedience of Faith: Our Response to God's Gracious Gift" (I should point out that this article was written a decade ago; thus, some of my views have changed somewhat, which will be obvious to those readers who have followed the evolution of my thinking on this topic -- an evolution well-documented in my third book: Immersed By One Spirit: Rethinking the Purpose and Place of Baptism in NT Theology and Practice). Some have even sought proof-texts from the OT writings to try and validate their theology of salvation by human obedience. I addressed this in Reflections #466 -- "To Obey Is Better Than Sacrifice: A Reflective Analysis of 1 Samuel 15:22-23."

Nevertheless, I continue to hear from those who are convinced they have discovered the definitive refutation of my understanding and application of the teaching that "it is by grace you have been saved, through faith -- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God -- not by works, so that none can boast" (Eph. 2:8-9). A few days before I left for the 2014 Tulsa Workshop, where I was one of the speakers, I received a lengthy email from a minister within the One Cup wing of the Churches of Christ who lives and works in Ohio. This brother's letter to me was very cordial and respectful, but he made it very clear that he is "one who sincerely believes that baptism is the ordinary manner one becomes a citizen of the Kingdom of God (aka: the church), and that Jesus instituted His memorial with one cup." I could spend the next month on the misconceptions in this one sentence alone, but I suspect they are quite evident to most of you (and I believe I have dealt with them sufficiently in a number of previous Reflections articles over the years). This preacher continues: "Now, regarding Grace: I would encourage you to consider grace as more of an opportunity than a free gift. A free opportunity. A great and gracious opportunity. An undeserved and unmerited opportunity. Grace is a gift in that it is an opportunity! Grace is the opportunity to obey Christ and be reconciled to God the Father through Christ the Son. That obedience includes baptism and remembering the Lord's death by observing the Communion with one cup. ... We are saved by grace through faith (i.e.: the golden opportunity provided by God through obedience to His Son)."

First, any responsible student of the Scriptures knows that nowhere within the inspired writings is God's grace ever declared to be an "opportunity to obey," which obedience then results in one's salvation. Such a perspective makes God's free gift nothing more than an opportunity to earn one's salvation by means of one's obedience to a system of law. Such a view is the absolute opposite of the Good News of what God has accomplished for us. Look at the picture of the two fish bowls at the beginning of this article. According to the view of this One Cup minister from Ohio, the fish bowl on the right represents that realm of eternal safety in which we must be found in order to be saved, while the fish bowl on the left represents the world. We must be transferred from one realm into the other in order to be saved. GRACE, according to this minister's view, is seen in the fact that God placed the fish bowl on the right alongside the one on the left, thus providing the "lost fish" the opportunity to "get to safety." IF they can, by their own effort, leap from the one to the other, they will be saved. Our "faith," then, sees the other fish bowl, and our "works" get us there! God didn't have to place that fish bowl there, they reason, but because of His great love for the fish He graciously provided them the opportunity to "leap to safety." Brethren, I firmly believe this view is false! Indeed, it is an insult to God's grace!

Let me offer a different view. Rather than leaving it to the fish to "leap for their lives," or perish in the stale waters of the world, God sends forth His gospel net into the first fish bowl. Some fish flee this net, others welcome its embrace (the latter do so by faith). God then draws us forth unto Himself and plunges us into the fresh waters of His kingdom. This is not accomplished by our will, or by our effort, but by His will and by His effort. This gracious new realm, in which we now swim, is obtained solely by grace through faith (Romans 5:2). The "plunging" into this "bowl of safety" is not something accomplished by the actions of men, but is accomplished by the Spirit of God Himself. I believe this is exactly what is being proclaimed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:13 -- "For we were all immersed by one Spirit into one body." The Gospel Net we embraced by faith, and the Spirit lifted us out of the "bowl of death" and "immersed/plunged" us into the "bowl of life." I have discussed this action by the Holy Spirit in some depth in Reflections #353 -- "Immersed By One Spirit." See also: Reflections #505 -- "There Is One Baptism," in which I discuss the Spirit's role in our immersion into Christ Jesus.

By redefining God's grace, as this preacher from Ohio has done, this grace has been undermined and cheapened. It reduces the matchless grace of our loving Father to nothing more than an "opportunity" to achieve salvation by means of our own effort (through obedience to law). Paul rebuked the Galatian brethren for similar foolishness, wondering, "Who has bewitched you? ... After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?" (Gal. 3:1-3). The great heresy that threatened to undermine the Gospel in the early church was that some level of human obedience to divine decree was necessary to salvation. In other words, according to this false teaching, grace was an opportunity to obey and be saved. God's part was simply to provide the fish bowl (this was grace); it was then our part to see that fish bowl (faith) and then leap into it (works of obedience). This view was strongly condemned in the New Covenant writings (especially by the apostle Paul), and it needs to be just as strongly condemned today.

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Readers' Reflections

From a Minister in Bristol, England:

Thank you so much, my brother Al, for continuing to teach without hesitation or fear the true meaning of the Lord's grace in our lives; a grace which can't be obtained, nor replaced, nor added to by any action on our part. Just this last Sunday, one of our flock told me she had informed her mother that she couldn't be saved unless she came here for baptism! I assure you this young woman had never heard such lies from our pulpit, for we emphasize His grace at every meeting in every way possible so that we might by all means reach all men. We gently corrected this sister, and she has said that she'll apologize to her mother and explain again the simple truths of the gospel of salvation. We stand with you in this task, brother (and it is a privilege indeed to do so), of preaching gospel grace: life-saving and life-changing. The Lord bless you, my brother. I so appreciate your Reflections.

From an Author/Publisher in Nevada:

Al, in the readers' section of your last issue of Reflections (Issue #611), your lengthy, valuable response to the next to last reader (the Minister from Texas), who handed you the poor illustration of a person who does not receive the gift of a car until he registers it with the DMV, was terrific! But then, your response to the final reader (the Minister from Ohio) was the topper!! If someone can't see the proper role of faith, and the proper place of baptism, after those two responses by you, that person will never see it.

From a Reader in Georgia:

I really do appreciate the time you take to respond, in the readers' commentary section, to some of the questions sent to you by your readers (and even some of the accusations sent to you by your critics -- I would imagine Bro. Ray Downen might be doing some "snorting" this morning!). These responses are helpful to us as well. You obviously are being "followed" with great interest by many people (perhaps that's another reason we hear the occasional "snort" from some! LOL). Have a great week, and I pray that your message at the Tulsa Workshop will be empowered and inspired from above!

From a Minister in Tennessee:

Your last Reflections -- "Did Jesus Snort Like A Horse?" -- was an interesting study. Not being a Greek scholar, I did not know of these words in the passages cited. Very interesting! Good study!

From a Minister in Tennessee:
[a regular writer for "The Spiritual Sword"]

Al, in accepting God's free gift of grace by faith, which you have stated "is a faith that will be evidenced in our actions thereafter in numerous ways," is repentance (Acts 17:30) one of those actions that evidences itself after one has received God's free gift of grace by faith? A simple, straight-forward answer will be much appreciated.

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

Glad to know you made it home safely after the Tulsa Workshop. The friend that was sitting with me at your speech in Tulsa and I had spent two hours over lunch the day before laboring over the very topic you spoke on. She kept nudging me during your talk, saying, "That's just what we were talking about. That's just what you were saying yesterday." As the Lord directed our conversation that day over lunch, I was able to share with her my own journey, and where my journey has led me. Your talk was the pièce de résistance of our whole weekend. Thank you for not being afraid to speak out and to stand for Truth. I'm also thankful for your congregation, as they undoubtedly at times face severe criticism for supporting you. May the God of heaven and earth richly bless your life.

From a Minister in Oklahoma:

Al, if there are students of the Word out there, and they are not subscribed to your Reflections, they are missing out on a great tool for deeper understanding of the Word of God. I find greater affinity with your writings than I do with any commentary in any library! Thanks also for a super presentation at the Tulsa Workshop. It was right on target. I pray that our brotherhood will give heed to it and begin to make some changes!

From a Minister in Alabama:

I spent my day Saturday at the Tulsa Workshop listening to Patrick Mead and Al Maxey (with whom I had a good visit). Can I say: my cup runneth over and I am filled.

From a Minister in Texas:

We were so sorry to miss your talk Saturday afternoon (due to a last minute change of plans), but we really enjoyed a CD of your talk from the 2011 Tulsa Workshop titled "Breaking the Chains of Stale Worship." It was very good!

From a Minister in the Philippine Islands:

Brother Maxey, thank you for accepting my Facebook friend request. The brethren from the States who come over here to do mission work often mention your name and your work.

From a Reader in Texas:

I believe I may have discovered the absolute "point of salvation," if someone really needs to know! That point in space/time would be when Jesus took His last breath -- "Jesus said, 'It is finished.' With that, He bowed His head and gave up His spirit (breath)" (John 19:30).

From a Reader in Arizona:

Howdy, Al. I just started reading a little book by Douglas Barry titled "Conditional Immortality: Biblical Proof of Annihilation in Hell." This author quotes you extensively in the first part of his book (I am just up to page 20, so don't know if you are quoted throughout the book or not). He also gives you credit for the quotes, as well as providing the URL to your web site. I just thought you would want to know about this (if you don't already know, that is). We hope that you and Shelly are doing well.

From a Reader in Colorado:

Please mail me the audio CD sets for your following Bible classes: (1) Encounters with Jesus, (2) Encouragement for the End Times, and (3) In-Depth Study of Galatians. My check is enclosed. Al, thank you so much for your wonderful ministry. Do you ever visit or teach in the Denver front range area? If so, it would be great to actually meet you in person!

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

I went to a gospel meeting last night and heard the preacher say from the pulpit that one is not saved until he or she has been baptized in water. I now understand your recent emails to me on this subject. Yes, baptism in water is an important command of God, and we neglect/reject it to our sorrow, but what you were saying about the caveman (Reflections #158 -- "Grace and the Caveman: Pondering the Parameters of Divine Acceptance of Human Response to Available Light") is that baptism in water is important IF one has the knowledge, opportunity and ability, which that caveman very obviously did NOT. And, of course, there are people in that same situation today, as well. Brother, I really wish I was physically able to come to Tulsa and hear you speak, but at my age it is just too much for me.

From a Reader in Tennessee:

Al, have you written about the expression so often attacked by the Church of Christ known as "The Sinner's Prayer"? In the Churches of Christ, at the end of the preaching, there is an appeal to the sinner (the "Invitation") to hear, believe, repent, confess, be baptized. In many denominational groups, though, there is an appeal to pray "The Sinner's Prayer." WHY does the Church of Christ view this with such contempt, and even ridicule? WHY does the Church of Christ feel a need to denounce and impugn and attack "The Sinner's Prayer"? Is it perhaps that this practice strikes at the very core of a theology that declares one isn't forgiven and saved UNTIL water baptism is done to him (usually done nowadays in the church baptistery)? Is it because this conflicts with the traditional Church of Christ view that one "contacts the blood" ONLY in the water of the baptistery? The Churches of Christ seem to see "The Sinner's Prayer" as threatening their long preached and cherished view that salvation, redemption, forgiveness is finalized and effected ONLY in water baptism. Thus, to counter this "denominational" practice, they attack, for the traditional Church of Christ view is that it's in the water that one is actually saved, and not at any point before! Church of Christ members have heard their preachers mock and scorn "The Sinner's Prayer" throughout the years, rather than seeking to understand that it is simply an appeal to and recognition of who Jesus is and what God has done for the sinner through Him; it is an earnest plea to God. The ridicule of the prayer of someone turning to God is really quite remarkable and unseemly. Al, you may already have dealt with "The Sinner's Prayer" and "our" traditional view of it, and if so would you direct me to that link in your writings. Thanks.

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

Al, with reference to your article "Contacting the Blood of Christ" (Reflections #608), the only place in the Bible that could be taken figuratively as "contacting" the blood of Jesus would be the wine in the Lord's Supper. Jesus said, "Drink from it, all of you. This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matt. 26:27-28). Thus, "contacting the blood," in this case, is for those already Christians. Jesus never said a single word about baptism representing His blood, or that we "contact" His blood in the water.

From a Reader in [Unknown]:

What a blessing it was to read your words about the grace of God in Reflections #610 -- "Purchasing the Gift of Grace: Does Man's Obedience bring about the Glorious Gift of God's Grace?" We finally found this truth, and it has changed our lives! We do pray that our brothers and sisters in every denomination will "get" it, but the ones we have talked to seem to have such a hard time letting go of their works. Truth comes by revelation, though, and we believe this truth is spreading all around the world. Grace changes people from the inside out. Thank Goodness for preachers like you, Bro. Maxey, who are sharing the REAL Good News!

From a Reader in Alabama:

I have really enjoyed reading all your Reflections. Thanks for your efforts. I live in -------, Alabama, and have attended the Non-Institutional, Non-Denominational, Conservative (i.e., Legalistic) Church of Christ all my life. Partially through your writings, however, I have come to realize that I should have been studying for myself far more all along. It is a journey! One recent thought I had is with regard to the "law of silence," which "we" used to condemn instrumental music. Playing "Devil's advocate" here, let me try to make someone think. If one really and truly believed and practiced the "law of silence" consistently, shouldn't a Church of Christ member sing ONLY "psalms, hymns and spiritual songs"? Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16 both only mention these three being sung. Yes, these two verses are clearly about our individual walk with the Lord, yet "we" always apply them to corporate worship. But, since these verses apply to our individual daily walk, where is our "authority" ("book, chapter and verse") for singing anything except psalms, hymns or spiritual songs? The Scriptures are silent about an individual singing a Country song, or a Pop song. In fact, there are no examples in the NT of individuals singing anything of a secular nature. Again, I don't believe in this position, but I cannot get an answer from a legalistic church member as to WHY it would be okay for them to sing along with the radio to a Country or Pop song. After all, if the "law of silence" forbids (as we have claimed), then Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16 would demand (according to such a theology) we limit our singing to only these three.

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