[I had a student ask for some material from lessons taught years ago, and so I’ve added the chart and text beneath it. Of course, we’re really just getting going. There are more charts to come. I’ve also added an example from a recent email condemning a Church of Christ for approving instruments. It’s the perfect example for the point I was trying to make.]
This is not easy stuff. Well, it’s only really hard because so many of us have been taught error, and the error is so familiar that we struggle to integrate these new truths into our understanding. Therefore, we need to take some time to kick these ideas around a bit to be sure we’ve really absorbed what’s being said.
The two-kinds-of-falling-away mistake
Some teach two levels of falling away–a temporary, easily fixed falling away where you go forward, confess your sins, and receive forgiveness and a permanent, impossible to fix falling away described in Hebrews. But my reading of Hebrews is that there is no in between. A Christian is either still saved or else fallen never to repent.
Recall our study of Romans. Verse 8:1 says there’s no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. It’s the same thought. If you’re a Christian at all, you’re saved.
Recall our study of 1 John. You either have faith, love, and live righteously or else are not a Christian at all. John leaves no room for lost Christians or even temporarily lost Christians. All Christians are saved all the time.
The normal path for a Christian is to come to faith in Jesus (which includes repenting) and submit to baptism. The Christian remains true to his faith and lives as well as he understands God’s will. His flesh is weak and so he makes mistakes. He isn’t perfect in fact, but he tries. Over time, he grows in his faith and becomes a better Christian.
However, there are times when he has doubts and is even angry with God (Ps. 4). He may for a while succumb to sin, but he quickly realizes his error, refreshes his repentance, and continues a life that is, overall, righteous.
Such a Christian is saved for every minute of every day of his life.
However, there’s another kind of Christian. This Christian starts out just like the first Christian. But this Christian decides to play with sin. He lets grace become an excuse for ignoring God’s will.
The first time he sleeps with his girl friend, he feels horribly guilty. But God doesn’t strike him dead, the sex is fun, and so he keeps doing so. Pretty soon, he really just doesn’t care how God feels about his sex life. Better yet, his friends at church have no clue what he’s doing, and so he can continue to enjoy the community of the church without really believing in its teachings.
Over time, his conscience becomes “seared as with a hot iron” (1 Tim. 4:2). When his desires and God’s desires differ, his desires win and he feels no guilt. Of course, he still opposes theft and some of the other sins, and so he feels holy for honoring God’s will, not recognizing that he’s only honoring God’s will because it’s also his own will!
For a while, the Spirit contends (Gen. 6:3) and strives with him (Acts 7:51), making him feel guilty for his sins. But the Spirit never overrides our free will, and so he eventually defeats the Spirit, quenching him (1 Thes. 5:19) (more literally, dousing the Spirit’s fire. The Greek word refers to a permanent end of a burning fire), and the Spirit leaves him, leaving him irrevocably damned and incapable of repenting.
The lost-every-time-I-sin mistake.
Some very good, very smart people teach once saved, always saved. How they deal with Hebrews is beyond me. And plenty of other verses teach that Christians can fall. Consider, for example, the Parable of the Sower.
Those who teach this are, I think, correctly repelled at the more conventional Church of Christ mistake that we are damned every time we sin until we specifically confess, repent of, and ask for forgiveness of the sin–going forward if the sin is public.
Of the two errors, I think once saved, always saved is less dangerous and less likely to divide churches. Both are wrong, but the notion that we are lost every time we sin is very, very damaging to our congregations and to fellowship among congregations. It’s the reason for nearly every split that has happened!
If it’s true–and if there’s any sin in my life not yet fixed–then I stand lost before God! After all, while I’ve rid my life of many of my former sins, I’m not yet done.
Worse yet, some sins are sins of omission, such as failure to evangelize or failure to pray without ceasing or failure to help the poor. If I pray for forgiveness of those sins tonight and wake up tomorrow still unevangelistic and less than perfect in my prayer life, I’m still lost. I mean, did I really even repent?
The doctrine-must-be-perfect mistake
Most of us realize that we’ll never completely defeat moral sins in our lives. Very few Americans completely overcome lust and materialism, for example, but we understand that grace comes from the trying and the growing. If I try hard not to lust after pretty women and yet occasionally I slip, I know that God is pleased with the effort if it’s genuine.
For most moral sins–anger, lack of hospitality, failure to be an encourager–we figure God takes a realistic view of our weakness and looks at the overall direction of our lives. And we’re right.
But in the doctrinal realm, we like to impose a much tougher standard on our neighbors. I struggle with anger now and then. I can see how you might, too. I don’t consider you lost for your struggle with anger. But I don’t struggle at all with taking communion weekly. I’ve done it all my life with very, very few slip ups. If you only take communion quarterly, well, you just have no excuse, do you?
The doctrine seems perfectly clear to me. I’ve been trained on the question since my youth. Therefore, you clearly are a sinner for taking communion only quarterly. Of course, God is anxious to forgive you. All you have to do is repent — and “repent” means change, and change means start taking weekly communion!
You see, for doctrinal sins, we define “repent” as entirely stop sinning whereas for moral sins we define “repent” as try hard to overcome the sin. Why the two standards?
Think about it. The man who is struggling to overcome a bad temper knows that his anger is sin. And yet he sins and we think God forgives him because he’s at least trying.
The man who’s been taught since his youth to take communion quarterly has no idea that this is wrong. Indeed, the Bible really isn’t that clear unless you are willing to base doctrine on later, uninspired Christian writings. And yet even though he sins in ignorance, thinking that he’s honoring God, we treat him as certainly damned!
But the intellect is no more perfectible than our yearning for wealth or pretty women. It’s a subtle but grave error to imagine that we can get our doctrine entirely right and so can fairly be damned for any doctrinal error at all.
In fact, we have to get the gospel right. If we worship the wrong savior or no savior at all, we are lost. We have to know who our Lord really is. But we don’t have to get the five acts of worship right to go to heaven. An error in worship only damns if it derives from a rebellious heart.
The everyone-else-is-rebellious mistake
One of the silliest arguments we sometimes make is that those who disagree with us do so out of a rebellious heart. Now, I’m sure that is sometimes true. But not often.
I just received this email from an arch-bishop wannabe regarding a church that’s decided to add an instrumental service —
Brethren, it is with sincere disgust, disdain and contempt that I address your decision to add instrumental music to your worship.
You join the Roman Catholics, most Protestant churches — Baptists, Methodists and millions of heretics in the rush to damnation.
Don’t try to hide behind your prayerful study and discussion in coming to this devilish decision, for you are knowingly going contrary to the New Testament will of Christ.
Please, do the Lord’s church one last favor — take the name “church of Christ” from your building and all other operations.
It’s indeed tempting to take the sign down — just to remove any association from people like this!
How on earth does he know that they “are knowingly going contrary to the New Testament will of Christ”? Jesus could know hearts. We cannot.
I suggest two exercises to overcome this mistake.
First, ask yourself this: why would someone go to church every Sunday, donate generously to missions and relief for the poor, volunteer for service projects, and otherwise commit himself to the Lord and then sing with an organ knowing that it’s sin but just wanting to rebel against God?
I’m sorry, but real people just don’t act that way.
Second, meet a Baptist or a community church member and talk to him about his walk with Jesus. Don’t try to convert him to a cappella singing. Just talk about Jesus and other spiritual matters you have in common. Spend an hour or two with him. Pray with him.
When it’s over, ask yourself: did I just meet with someone who is knowingly in rebellion against God’s will?
The reality is that the overwhelming majority of believers outside the Churches of Christ do what they do intending to honor God. Sometimes they err, but they don’t deliberately sin. Therefore, they are still saved according to Romans 8:1, not damned according to Hebrews 10:26-27.
Now, we are not yet considering the doctrine of baptism. That’s another subject. But there are many outside the Churches of Christ who baptize believers by immersion, often for remission of sins. We are not at all unique in this teaching.
Oh, and we really need to remember a critical teaching. Although Jesus could judge hearts and fairly speak quite harshly to people, and the apostles evidently had similar gifts — we do not. Therefore, we are told —
(2 Tim 2:24-26) And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 25 Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.
Even if the church is entirely in error in using instruments, there is only possible response from their a cappella brothers. (And has anyone ever been persuaded by such hurtful tactics? I don’t think so.)
The lazy Christian mistake
This may be the biggest mistake of all. Many times when our members finally come to learn about grace, they are thrilled and relieved, but they also no longer bother to do good works. They were only serving God out of fear. With the fear removed, they lose their motivation!
Peter was aware of this risk and taught a powerful lesson. Peter starts be reminding us of the grace Jesus gives us–
(2 Pet. 1:3-4) [Jesus’] divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. 4 Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.
But Peter is always practical. The promises are given us so that we can “escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.” God expects us to avoid worldly sins.
(2 Pet. 1:5-8) For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; 6 and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; 7 and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. 8 For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Peter then teaches a very practical lesson. Grow in the Christian virtues. You will never have perfect faith or goodness, etc., but you can most certainly possess these “in increasing measure.”
(2 Pet. 1:10-11) Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall, 11 and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
You see, it’s possible to have a “sure election” and therefore it’s possible to have an “unsure election.” If I don’t make my election sure, then I’ve left it unsure. I’m in jeopardy of falling. And at some point, I will fall, never to return.
How do I prevent this? Well, I grow in the Christian virtues and I continue to do so. And so long as I’m growing, my salvation is dead certain. I cannot fall.
(1 Pet. 1:5) [You] through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.
(2 Pet. 3:17-18) Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position. 18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.
God gives us security if we’ll only take it! But this security requires that we always grow as Christians. There never comes a time, health permitting, that we can say we’ve done enough and have become good enough. We work and mature until God calls us home to his rest.
Here’s how it works —
Those who have never been saved are on the left side. If they accept Jesus as the Son of God and as Lord, they will be saved and receive the Holy Spirit when they are baptized. So long as they are faithful and penitent, they will be saved forever and will possess the Spirit and all its blessings.
But you cannot be faithful and penitent and not grow. A penitent person grows in his relationship with Jesus and matures as a Christian. He develops a more Christ-like character.
A Christian who does not grow has a problem with his penitence. How can you let Jesus be Lord and not mature? Obviously, we all have times when we backslide and don’t grow, and even fall back, and such times do not put us out of Christ.
But our election ceases to be sure. We are in serious danger, but not yet lost. But there will come a time when a lack of penitence ultimately creates a hard heart. After a while, a heart that doesn’t repent, can’t repent. Thus, the arrow in the middle of the box points two ways. The certainty of your election can come and go. An uncertain election is nonetheless an election, but a very dangerous one.
If you lose your faith or your willingness to make Jesus Lord, and if the Spirit has been quenched by you because you refuse to respond to it, you pass through the arrow on the right, and your new condition is worse than your first. You are lost and don’t care. You just don’t care about Jesus or his commands, and so you will never return to the Lord. This condition is reserved for the hard-hearted—people who have once been tenderhearted enough to be saved but who have chosen to reject Jesus despite having been saved and having received all the blessings that come with salvation.
The scary thing is that the disease, hard-heartedness, makes it hard for the falling Christian to notice his problem or to care that he has a problem. Once you begin down this slippery slope, it is very hard indeed to help yourself. Therefore, the early help and intervention of your Christian brothers and sisters is critical.
The failure to disciple mistake
Grace is wonderful beyond words! Falling from grace is awful beyond words!
We forget these two easy teachings and so often lead our churches incorrectly. Much of the New Testament’s teaching is built on these two simple premises. Particularly, much of the doctrine of church discipline is about keeping our brothers from falling.
In Matthew 18:15 ff, we are taught to go to a brother who sins (“against us” is likely not in the original) and urge him to repent. Why? Are we to insist on moral or doctrinal perfection? Surely not. If we did that, we’d spend our entire lives confronting our brothers and being confronted!
But when a brother begins to sin in a way that looks like a Hebrews 10:26-27 deliberate continuing to sin, we need to quickly intervene so that our brother doesn’t become so desensitized to sin that he cannot be brought back.
You see, the great danger of sin is that (a) for a time, it’s often very fun and (b) sin desensitizes us to the Spirit and our brothers in Christ. The more we sin, the harder it is to come back. There comes a point where we literally cannot repent.
Therefore, willful sin becomes a community matter. We have to look out for each other. We need to surrender a little of our American insistence on privacy and give our Christian friends permission to ask us if we’re being sexually pure, abusing alcohol, and such.
1 Cor. 5 and 2 Thes. 3:14 ff both deal with Christians who commit sins they know to be sin. They aren’t being penitent. They are rebelling against the Lordship of Jesus. They certainly aren’t growing in the Christian graces. And they are in danger of falling away forever.
The solution Paul prescribes is to remove such people from our fellowship in hopes that they’ll repent. Now, there’s a real art to disfellowshipping an erring member. First, the must be in fellowship. If they’ve already left the church, then disfellowshipping them is simply being vindictive.
On the other hand, if we disfellowship them too soon, the church won’t support it’s leaders. This sort of discipline has to be a last-ditch effort–but not too last ditch.
Long before we expel a brother from our midst, we must follow this command–
(2 Tim. 2:24-26) And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 25 Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.
We are bad to quarrel, to be resentful, and to be harsh. But the command is to gently restore the sinner without quarreling. After all, we are trying to bring him back because we love him, and he needs to really feel the love. He needs to see the hurt in our eyes, the tears we shed at the prospect of his leaving us.