Another critical mistake of 20th Century Church of Christ teaching is the false assumption that we receive more grace at baptism than is available to us afterwards. I’m sure many churches have members who’ve committed some horrible sin who can’t feel forgiven unless they are re-baptized. We’ve taught that God gives utterly complete forgiveness at baptism (he does) but that afterwards forgiveness depends on how well and how often we repent, confess, and pray for forgiveness — and even then that forgiveness isn’t given to those who don’t truly repent by eliminating that sin from their lives.
Thus, we argue, that those in the independent Christian Churches are damned because they’ve not repented of their use of the instrument — even if they commit their error utterly unaware that they are in error. Of course, the same logic would leads us to conclude that we aren’t forgiven of our lust unless we’ve stopped lusting entirely — and even more so, because we know that lust is a sin.
As a result, it’s very common for those raised on 20th Century Church of Christ teaching to believe they aren’t saved — or if they are, they are only saved briefly after their last prayer for forgiveness. You see, you can’t damn the independent Christian Churches without damning yourself — and our churches are filled with people who feel damned.
Now, the scriptures plainly teach that the forgiveness given us after our baptism is stronger, indeed “much more”, than the forgiveness we receive at baptism.
(Rom. 5:8-10a) But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. … 10 For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son … .
In these verses, Paul is talking about the beginning of our justification — our pardon. He points out the amazing fact that God forgave us while we were still sinners and God’s enemies. We forget that we were not yet God’s children and not yet part of his church when he first forgave us. Rather, he forgave us so that we could become his children and a part of his Kingdom.
Paul then teaches a most extraordinary lesson –
(Rom 5:9-10) Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10 For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!
We are now much more saved than when we were first baptized! It’s so important, Paul says it twice!
Take a moment to let this thought wash over you. Savor it. We know how utterly clean and washed we were at our baptism. Our souls were made spotless. Not a single sin was left charged to our account. We received the freshest of fresh starts.
Paul says that now that we are God’s friends, having been reconciled, it’s obvious that God will be even more — much more — willing to forgive! You see, baptism not only shows us the complete washing that takes place when we are immersed, it also shows the washing that will continue thereafter.
Now, I urgently point out that we are capable of surrendering this magnificent salvation. We can fall away. But that’s not the typical case. No — we are actually continuously cleansed and forgiven now that we’ve been saved.
While I think “pattern” is the wrong term for the boundaries of salvation, if that’s the term you insist on, then the “pattern” is the same for entry into the Kingdom as for exit from the Kingdom. We are added to the church because of faith and repentance. When we lose our faith or our repentance, we are removed from the church. The boundaries are the same. However, it’s harder to leave than to enter, because God’s Spirit lives in those who’ve been saved, helping them stay away from those boundaries.
You see, the Bible plainly teaches that faith in Jesus remains a boundary after we’ve been saved —
(1 John 4:2-3) This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.
And the Bible teaches that a lack of penitence (a failure to submit to Jesus as Lord) damns —
(Heb 10:26-27) If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, 27 but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.
Now, I’d be remiss if I didn’t add that adding boundaries that God didn’t add also damns. The whole point of Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians is that seeking salvation by works rather than faith damns — and he is particularly tough on those who teach such things, because they sow the seeds of division and take hope away from people that Jesus died to give hope to.
The result is a marvelous symmetry. We are saved by God through the work of Jesus if we have faith and repent. We fall away when we lose either our faith or our repentance.
Now, are there boundaries? Of course. Jesus is Lord, and that means we are to obey him. But obedience is the natural product of our faith, repentance, and the Spirit’s work in our hearts. If those things are present, we’ll be obedient. We won’t be perfectly obedient, but obedience will characterize our lives — and we’ll still be saved. We’ll meet the standard that you stated.
But if we lose our faith or our repentance or if we so grieve the Spirit that we quench the Spirit and lose the Spirit, well, we can’t possibly be obedient enough to make it. Then, only perfect obedience will do.
Our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
Marks of the Church
I’m sure some readers are still asking: but where are the boundaries? And by “boundaries,” they mean the rules. Where are the rules for how to live as Christians?
Well, we can’t discuss these things until we’ve first learned something about how we’re saved — because we in the Churches of Christ want to turn our ethics into the laws of how someone falls away. We desperately want to declare as damned those who worship or organize their churches differently than we do — because we want to vaunt our denomination over theirs. And this is simply not how it works.
Yes, the Bible addresses these issues. No, they do not define the boundaries of the Kingdom. Rather, the marks of the church are exactly what you’d expect —
(John 13:34-35) “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
(John 17:20-23) “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: 23 I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
(Eph 1:13-14) And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession–to the praise of his glory.
And, of course, faith in Jesus. You see, it all fits.
Never do the scriptures say that the true church will be marked as Christ’s church by having the right acts of worship or the right number of elders, which is why the scriptures say so much more about faith, love, unity, and the Spirit than instrumental music and such like.
You see, we’ve inherited a 16th Century Reformation mode of thought, seeking to determine the true church by finding error in the church down the road. But that’s not the direction in which the New Testament points.