The 20th Century Churches of Christ have staunchly opposed the ecumenical movement, largely because they saw the other denominations as lost and saw no hope of converting the others to their way of thinking.
In those days, the unity efforts largely were handled by negotiations among bishops and patriarchs and other high officials of the various denominations — with minimal success due to non-negotiable differences regarding the sacraments and church organization.
However, today, the real ecumenical movement is taking place in the pews, as church members reject the thinking of their leaders and insist on respecting baptisms and honoring faith in Jesus across denominational lines, with no concern for the ancient doctrines that have long separated denominations.
This is not Postmodernism or liberalism or any other -ism. It’s the work of God’s Holy Spirit bringing unity despite the best efforts of our leaders — and it’s right, holy, and good.
That is, much as Stone and Thomas Campbell originally pleaded, unity need not be about creating a new denominational structure (and pretending not to be a denomination). Rather, unity is a state of mind and heart — it’s recognizing as saved people who are members of another denomination but who have a genuine, penitent faith in Jesus. And the glory of this approach is that it doesn’t require that anyone surrender his conscience — so long as he recognizes those with faith in Jesus as saved.
I attended an Episcopalian funeral yesterday — a Saturday — and they offered Holy Communion to all present — not just Episcopalians. We in the Churches of Christ might wonder whether we have authority to take communion on a Saturday, but the Episcopalians reason that anything that brings us closer to God during a time of mourning is a good thing — even if it means crossing denominational lines for family and friends to do this together.
This bit of history raises two critical questions. First, how can someone be saved while in error or sin? Second, how can someone be saved while in error as to his baptism? And obviously the second question depends in large part on the first.
We begin in one of the verses that convicted me on this point early on in my studies —
(Rom 8:1 ESV) There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
If you read much conservative Church of Christ literature, you soon find yourself up against the concept of saved Christians and lost Christians. The idea seems to be that you can be a Christian (did all Five Steps) but are somehow in unrepented sin or serious error so that your salvation has been lost — but can be regained.
And yet Paul seems to very plainly say that if you are “in Christ Jesus,” that is, a Christian, there is “no condemnation.” None. Zero. Zilch.
The well-schooled Church of Christ disputant immediately objects that this sounds very much like once saved, always saved (OSAS) or perseverance of the saints (POTS) — Calvinist heresy that we don’t agree with. Nor do I. But we can’t just erase Paul’s words from the Bible by calling a Paul a Calvinist! He means them. In fact, they appear at a particularly climactic place in Romans. Contextually, Paul is clearly making a major point built on the preceding seven chapters.
For example (read these together),
(Rom 4:4-8 ESV) 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: 7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; 8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”
(Rom 6:23 ESV) 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Again, Paul insists that, while we earn death, eternal life a “free gift.” We don’t and can’t earn it — not even part of it. We don’t have to pay 20% down and hope God handles the balance. It’s 100% free. And this is entirely consistent with there being no condemnation. Right?
Even earlier in Romans —
(Rom 3:21-25 ESV) 21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it — 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.
This is no anomaly and Paul means it. It’s true. There’s no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. That means that if you are a Christian at all, you are saved.
And this doesn’t mean you can’t fall from grace. Paul teaches that this can happen in Galatians 5 — but when you fall away, you are no longer a Christian, alienated from Christ, and as Hebrews puts it, “no sacrifice for sins remains” (Heb 10:26-27).
We don’t flit back and forth between saved and lost depending on how good we were last night or how well we prayed for forgiveness at church. Generally speaking, Romans 8:1 states the rule: “No condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.”
So why not sin all the more that grace may abound? Why not live in utter rebellion? Why not treat Jesus’ sacrifice with contempt and live for self and not for God?
Well, for these very good reasons:
1. Salvation is for those with faith in Jesus. The Greek word for “faith” includes the meaning “faithfulness” (and is often translated that way in the New Testament). If you rebel against God, you no longer have faith and you’ve thrown away your salvation.
2. The scriptures teach that rebellion damns those who’ve been saved. (Heb 6:4-6; 10:26-27).
3. You can’t love God and willfully sin.
4. Remember the Spirit? Unless you work to grieve the Spirit, the Spirit will work to transform your heart so that you love God from the heart and so you want to please God. The desire for rebellion will be taken away — not immediately, but over time as you walk with God.
I won’t promise that it ever entirely leaves you, but it’s power is slowly defeated. Of course, we can all experience hard times in our lives when the urge to rebel is rekindled. And the Spirit helps — but often fails because we fail to take advantage of all that we’ve been given.
You see, I have the Spirit. So do you. So do our brothers and sisters at church. And we are saved not only into a personal relationship with Jesus but into a community of saved people, filled with the Spirit.
When times are tough and temptations are strong, the solution may be more than prayer and Bible study. Quite often, it’s calling upon brothers and sisters in Christ for support. It’s the church that God has given us to help us make it to the end.
(Heb 10:24-27 ESV) 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. 26 For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.
Verse 25 is typically interpreted as “Go to church or you’re a sinner!” whereas the real point is that, if you don’t meet with your brothers and sisters, you won’t have the encouragement essential to avoid falling away.
I know of many Christians who’ve formed accountability groups, typically no more than four men or women, who meet weekly to help push each other to mature in Christ — and to resist falling away. They hold each other accountable in order to build each other up. And that’s very much in line with the thought of this passage.
If you don’t find the encouragement you need in your Sunday morning assembly, or prayer time with your spouse, or small group, consider forming such a group. It’s one way that the Spirit can powerfully work in your life.