|Vol. 16 No. 1 January 2014||
T. Pierce Brown (deceased)
It was almost fifty years ago, but I still remember the conversation. It went about like this: “Billy, why don’t you come into the church? It would make your parents so happy. You are a good boy. You would not have to give up anything. You just need to complete your obedience in baptism.” “No,” Billy replied, “Not now.” Almost half a century has passed and Billy is still not a Christian.
However, this question may be raised: If he had decided to “come into the church” to make his parents happy upon the assumption that he did not have to give up anything, but simply to “complete his obedience” in baptism, what would he have been? The truth is, he probably would have been in about the same condition that thousands are who are connected with the Lord’s church in one way or another. Let us examine in more detail some of the implications of the plea of that precious person who was trying to help Billy become a member of the church about which you can read in the Bible.
First, “Why don’t you come into the church?” This does not even begin to be the kind of question the apostles asked. The idea began with the concept that the church is an organization into which a person decides to come in order to be saved. It is “the Ark of Safety,” similar to the ark into which Noah and his family, along with some choice animals, escaped the perils of the flood. After all, the Bible alludes to it in 1 Peter 3:20-21, and it is a wonderful illustration, even though some that I thought were brethren now make fun of the necessity for Noah to use gopher wood, and the idea that faith involves, “Thus did Noah; according to all that God commanded him so did he” (Genesis 6:22).
I do not know how many times I have preached sermons using Noah and the Ark as a type of our salvation, and plan to do so again as the opportunity is presented. Yet, when one stretches the illustration to make it appear that the way to “get saved” is to “come into the church,” and the way to “come into the church” is to “get baptized” – especially since the church is the right church, and baptism is the right way to get into it – one does untold damage to the Truth of God regarding both salvation and the church.
No unsaved person was ever told by the apostles anything that sounded like, “Look around until you find a church that has the right name, doctrine and practice, and if you get baptized into it, you will be saved, and relatively safe, especially if you attend all the services.” If anyone who reads this needs to be convinced of the above truth, you really need to do more than merely write me about it, but if you think you need to, I will try to help you if I can.
Second, “It will make your parents so happy.” No doubt it would have, and there is certainly nothing wrong with a boy wanting to make his parents happy. However, to put that kind of motivation at the forefront of an invitation to obey the Lord certainly perverts the plan and purpose of God, to say the least. Suppose a person had been standing there whose parents would have been very displeased?
Third, the idea that “You would not have to give up anything, since you are a good boy” is far more dangerous and prevalent than many realize. In the first place, it is plainly at odds with Jesus’ teaching in Luke 14:33 and various other places. Not only must a person be willing to “renounce all he has,” he must in a very real sense “renounce all he is,” for he must “deny self” (Matthew 16:24).
In addition to that, there is another subtle error that probably is partly responsible for the rash of rash articles on “Salvation by Grace,” many of which erroneously teach that since salvation is by grace, we are under no law. That would mean we could not sin, for sin is a transgression of the law (1 John 3:4). Yet, the truth is, there is in many Christians a great lack of understanding of the meaning of salvation by grace, and many tragic results.
The usual idea is probably what Billy understood about the above conversation. “You are a good boy. You have almost worked yourself into salvation on your own, but you need to be saved by the grace of God, so if you will ‘complete your obedience’ in baptism, it will shift you into the ‘grace mode,’ and God’s grace will take care of the part that you were not able to do on your own.”
The tragic results begin with the loss of any reasons for gratitude, for if I did most of the job myself, I owe God very little. They are compounded by the consequent pride that results, and further magnified by the insecurity and fear that come as a result of the idea that we were saved mostly by our own efforts in the first place, and if we fail in any of those efforts, the grace of God will only stretch so far, so it will be ineffective.
In this article, I cannot begin to do justice to the correction of all those things, but we need to point out that the correction is not done just by trying to teach, “We are certainly saved by grace, but that grace only covers that part of our lives which are not made secure by our own perfect obedience.”
The Rich Young Ruler would need to be saved by grace just as much as the men who crucified the Lord. A person who can swim 50 miles and jumps off the pier in New York to swim to London is no better off than the man who can swim only 50 yards and does the same thing. They both drown, and if saved at all are not saved by their own power, no matter how impressive it is. We must never forget that salvation by grace most certainly involves accepting that grace on the terms provided by Christ, but to get that mixed up with the idea that “you are a good boy and grace will take care of what you missed if you will get baptized” is wrong and tragic.
As bad as it is to destroy gratitude and create pride in our own righteousness, it is not much worse than another result. The impression is left that since salvation by grace just operates in a small area that is left over after good works and obedience really had the problem of salvation from sin almost solved, it has little, if anything, to do with final salvation, for that all depends on our ability to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). So, if we fail to keep properly any commandment or to work as hard as we should in any area, we are in mortal (or immortal) danger of being lost forever. As one precious friend told me many years ago, “I am not afraid of being lost for sins of commission, but I am afraid I will be lost for sins of omission. I have probably left many things undone that need doing, and may go to hell for it.” I tried to tell her, “If our salvation depended on making sure that we had not left undone anything that needed doing, we are all without hope.” To deliberately choose to follow self-will and refuse to do what God wants done and thus reject God’s grace is far different from feeling lost because we did not do all we could for Christ.
She had scarcely any concept of salvation by grace, and the meaning and power of 1 John 1:7 had never occurred to her. “If we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Christ cleanseth [keeps on cleansing] us from all sin” does not give a person license to sin deliberately and expect grace to take care of it. It does teach “the security of the believer” in a far better way than the false doctrine of denominationalism which teaches that the grace of God is so wonderful that once you are saved, you could not be lost if you wanted to, would not want to if you could, and if you did, it would not matter.
The believer is secure because he is “walking in the light” – continuing to want to do what Christ wants – hand in hand with Jesus, so to speak, and keeps being cleansed from his sin because he is always penitent. However, he is not cleansed because he kept the law perfectly. If he had kept it perfectly, he would not have any sins to be cleansed! He is cleansed by the grace of God in spite of the fact that he failed to keep the law perfectly, provided he accepts that grace on God’s terms.
A person must always avail himself of the grace of God in the appointed way, but this is far different from the concept that many Christians have that we are constantly on a tightrope across a fiery chasm, and any wind may cause us to lose our balance and fall off. It is true that you can loosen your safety belt and fall off, but it also true that you can choose to keep the safety belt latched and will be “kept by the power of God through faith unto a salvation ready to be revealed in the last day” (1 Peter 1:5). You keep it latched by the constant humble, penitent, grateful, obedient attitude you have as you “walk in the light, as he is in the light.”
In addition to all the other things wrong with the concepts expressed is the idea that one “completes his obedience” in baptism. I am reasonably sure that the expression began to be used to express the thought that when a person believed, he had not completed his obedience to the Gospel, when he repented, he had not, when he confessed, he had not, but when he was baptized properly, he had “completed his obedience” to the Gospel and was saved, being added to the church, the body of Christ. The impression has been left on thousands that baptism “completes one's obedience.” The apparent result is that since my obedience was completed, I am reasonably well satisfied to leave it that way!
So, since my salvation is dependent on “complete obedience,” and I “completed my obedience” in baptism, anything else I may do has little to do with my gratitude for salvation by grace, but just strengthens my case, ministers to my pride or creates fear and unrest because I sometimes realize I really have not completely obeyed everything, nor done enough good. It is strange that it can create both pride and fear in the same person at the same time!
So those of us who try to preach the truth about the grace of God and point out that one must accept that grace on the terms God offers it still need to try to make sure that our hearers understand that they can neither pay for or earn salvation, and should be full of gratitude for God’s salvation and preservation through his grace.