There are many unstated assumptions that divide the progressive and conservative camps in the Churches of Christ. One of these is the conservative assumption that while our moral nature is fallen and so not capable of perfection, our intellect is not fallen and so is capable of perfection. Let me explain.
When it comes to the ordinary moral sins, the conservative writers will generally explain that grace continuously forgives our sins.
For example, Wayne Jackson writes in the Christian Courier,
While many Bible students are aware of the fact that the blood of Jesus is applied to their souls in their initial obedience to the gospel, which occurs at the point of baptism (Acts 22:16), some do not realize that the Lord’s cleansing blood continues to function on their behalf as they struggle with sin in their Christian lives.
John speaks to this very point. He says “if we walk in the light. . . the blood of Jesus. . . cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).
There are several important notes that you can make in connection with this passage. First, the promise of the passage is conditional. Circle the term “if” and note that point. Second, the verb “walk” is a present tense form, denoting a consistent pattern of life. It represents the activity of one who is sincerely striving, on a sustained basis, to serve God. It does not suggest that he is perfect, but that he is trying diligently.
Similarly, Phil Sanders writes regarding 1 John 1:7,
I am a fallible sinner saved by the grace of God, dependent upon His mercy for salvation. I understand what it means to be saved, since I cannot save myself. But in all my weakness, I do not suppose that I can presume upon the grace and never need repentance.
The blood of Jesus can certainly cleanse those who walk in the light. Walking in the light is not sinlessness, because no one is capable of sinless perfection.
Both men interpret the passage well. The test is not whether we’ve defeated sin but whether we “struggle with sin” and are “sincerely striving” and “trying diligently.” We all sin and we are all saved solely by God’s mercy, but he expects us to strive to do right. Amen.
However, both men immediately limit God’s grace when it comes to theological matters. Jackson continues,
Third, the “walking” must be “in the light,” i.e., in harmony with the revealed will of God, the New Testament. Fourth, if this habitual walking in the light is devoutly pursued, the Lord’s blood will keep on cleansing (present tense – sustained activity) the child of God. Implied in all of this, of course, is the fact that the erring Christian must repent of, and confess, his transgressions.
(emphasis added). Ponder this carefully. Our sins are forgiven only while we walk “in harmony with the … New Testament.” In other words, if we get any doctrine wrong, we are not in the light.
Sanders also immediately adds language limiting the grace described in 1 John 1:7 to non-doctrinal matters —
But people can fool themselves, thinking they are in the light, when they are not (1 John 1:6). Sand theology does not yield the same results as rock theology (Matt. 7:21-27). Sand theology is when people build where they want rather than heed the words of Jesus. Self-made religion and innovations are sand theology. Those who plant their own plants will find themselves uprooted (Matt. 15:14).
Sanders declares that bad theology is outside 1 John 1:7, which includes “self-made religion” (which we covered in this earlier post).
It seems rather odd that If we get the doctrine right and violate it — such as through greed or anger or lust — that’s continuously forgiven, even though we know better! But if we err regarding the pattern of worship, we are damned even though we are truly striving to obey God.
You see, Sanders and Jackson, who are quite typical of conservative Churches of Christ, assume that we need grace for moral sin, because we all struggle in this area. No one gets moral sin perfect. But doctrine, well, we can get doctrine right.
The implicit assumption — unstated and likely unrealized — is that our moral natures fell in Eden when Adam and Eve sinned and so can only be redeemed through grace, but our intellects are not fallen at all. If we sincerely study God’s word with common sense and an open mind, we can all reach the identical conclusions and be truly united.
Sanders believes we would all agree on doctrine if we truly all loved God —
In all ages God has shown displeasure with presumptuous innovation. Those who love God will not consider innovation as one option among many. They will keep themselves abiding in the word and so prove themselves to be true disciples (Jn 8:31).
Jackson sees it as a matter of truly revering God’s will, rather than being rebellious and frail —
When one speaks of a “restoration” plea, several things are implied. First, there is the suggestion that there is a divine pattern for human conduct. Second, God expects conformity to that pattern. Third, in the nature of things, rebellious and frail men will digress from that heavenly way. Fourth, it is the responsibility of those who revere the Lord’s will to restore the primitive order and call their fellows back to the “old paths” (cf. Jeremiah 6:16).
But there are plenty of good, devout, God-fearing people who just plain disagree. Everyone is fallen — and not just their moral natures. Our intellects are imperfect as well, and we all make mistakes when it comes to interpreting the scriptures.
Of course, if you study the writings of the conservative Churches of Christ carefully, you find they disagree among themselves over all sorts of issues, too. But if the intellect is perfectible, and if we get the “pattern” wrong only due to rebellion or a lack of love, well, we ought to get it all right, right?
The intellect is fallen as well as our moral nature. Indeed, to argue otherwise is dualistic, even Gnostic. Our minds are far from perfect, we all make mistakes of the intellect, and if God doesn’t have grace for those of us who have imperfect intellects, he has no grace for anyone.